The turmoil in much of the Arab world has grown into more than a regional protest by peoples seeking to overthrow repressive regimes. Successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have spurred demonstrations from Morocco to Iran and now, tragically, conflict in Libya which increasingly looks like civil war.
The criminal acts of that country’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi, demand foreign intervention. With that, comes an opportunity for the U.S. to restore its prestige and political leadership on the world stage.
U.S. efforts to maintain stability in this strategic region have for decades trumped more high-minded notions of democracy and freedom. America’s presence there ― whether military or civilian ― often engenders, at best, suspicion and, at worst, violence. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the persistent instability in that country have served mainly to cement ― justifiably or not ― this hostile view of U.S. intentions.
It can come as no surprise, then, that Washington’s genuine concern for the well being of the people of Libya ― manifested in a debate on implementing a no-fly zone over that country ― initially received few kudos among Arabs. Only now, as an entrenched Colonel Gadhafi escalates his attacks and reports of massacres proliferate, is vehement rejection of U.S. involvement softening among some leading Arab organizations.
Equally disappointing is the lack of stronger support for U.S. action among its European allies. The European Union seems to be paralyzed again by the usual internal struggle to find a common position on a foreign-policy and security issue. EU leaders appear to be back to their bad habit of putting their heads in the sand, hoping for a United Nations resolution, and preventing more refugees from reaching their shores.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization also is hamstrung. Ahead of meetings of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, there is no consensus within the alliance for any military move similar to the action that put a halt to genocide in the former Yugoslavia in 1999. The U.S. is unlikely to find many European brothers-in-arms to stop Gadhafi’s murderous assaults on his people.
The U.N. is also an improbable forum for real action. Russia and China, though each for its own reasons, are as suspicious of U.S. intentions as the average Arab man and woman on the street. European hopes for global cover are almost certain to be shattered by vetoes from Moscow and Beijing.
As a European, I still dream of a strong and united Europe that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. to demonstrate that Western democracy is more than an esoteric concept. I long for a day when the transatlantic partners stand behind their words and put into deeds their commitment and dedication to freedom and human rights for all.
But let’s face facts: The partnership looks like it works best on economic issues. So if the U.S. makes a move in Libya, it’s likely to do so, again, essentially alone.
There are many valid reasons for the Barack Obama administration to approach Libya warily. But as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the U.S. is in worldwide competition with emerging powers. That competition transcends economic and financial strength. It’s also a contest about political systems.
With the Middle East and North Africa in the throes of revolt, now is the time for a full-throated support of democracy. Some regimes have already been overthrown; others are likely to follow. The U.S. should unequivocally champion those long oppressed who now struggle to eject their oppressors. This moral clarity would go a long way toward restoring America’s image.
The U.S. doesn’t err in standing up again for the principles for which it has often fought in the past. Its desire for a broad international consensus on Libya while considering action is understandable. But events on the ground are outpacing the ability to forge any international mandate.
Europe may be undergoing another round of dithering self-reflection on its role and influence in the world, and others may view any U.S. move with distrust and enmity. That can’t and shouldn’t stop America from acting.
By Annette Heuser
Annette Heuser is executive director of the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington. The opinions expressed are her own. ― Ed.