How Not to Intervene in Libya

Pundits and politicians are promoting all kinds of dangerous ideas for taking down Qaddafi. Here are five rules Obama should consider before plunging in blindly.

Heading into its fourth week, the uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime in Libya has deteriorated into a war of attrition, pitting two sides against each other -- the rebels and loyalists of the Libyan army aided by a number of mercenaries -- that both comprise a collection of distinctly unprofessional and loosely organized forces. Most are tied directly or indirectly to families, tribes, or the different provinces and have no overall unified command-and-control structure that would ensure a quick victory for either side.

Although the Qaddafi forces may have the advantage in military hardware, as in all wars of attrition the outcome of the struggle will be determined by a combination of factors: each side's overall military strength, the coherence of each group's military plans, the ability to keep up morale among each side's supporters, the possession of sufficient financial resources, the ability to convince group members that they still represent the winning side, the personal characteristics of each side's leadership, and perhaps the approbation or disapproval of the international community.

No matter how long this war of attrition takes, it is almost unavoidable that Qaddafi will lose. Although he has the financial resources and, for now, still loyal military brigades around him, his options will gradually narrow as the actions of the international community and his forces' inability to reconquer the eastern part of Libya gradually take their toll in undermining his credibility to represent himself as the leader of a unified country.

If this assumption is correct, it raises two essential questions for Washington. Despite America's checkered past in Libya, the administration will want to answer these questions early on as it struggles for a coherent policy and the debate among top officials flares up. First, what can the United States do to help ensure that the rebel side prevails? Second, how can it do so without jeopardizing America's standing among the different family, tribal, and provincial factions that will inevitably emerge in a post-Qaddafi Libya where all rivalries and divisions have been violently suppressed for more than four decades?

Asking these questions is, of course, much easier than answering them. Of all the uprisings shaking the region, events in Libya present the United States with some of the most difficult challenges so far. The U.S. government has very little on-the-ground intelligence and very little deep, long-standing expertise on the country. Into this vacuum has stepped the usual gaggle of pundits, instant experts who likewise understand very little about the country's history, and grandstanding politicians from both sides of the aisle. Yet no one in any meaningful policymaking position in Washington has thus far declared that what happens in Libya is of national interest to the United States.

As the Obama team finds its way tentatively toward a Libya policy, torn by these conflicting opinions, here are a handful of guidelines about possible U.S. involvement in Libya's immediate future from a longtime observer. We should keep in mind that we will encounter a Libya that will not only be torn and traumatized by multiple, deep-seated social and economic divisions, but will also, as part of its historical legacies, be extremely reluctant to see any outside power deliberate on its behalf.

You cannot divide and conquer. For a number of reasons, both Libyans and the international community have an interest first and foremost in keeping the country unified. The United States should resist recognizing any regional body -- such as the recently created Libyan National Council in Cyrenaica, which France has just recognized -- as the legitimate representation of the country. The resentment within Tripolitania and Fezzan would be enormous -- and both regions are needed to keep the country's economy running and the country itself intact. And though the rebels may claim they represent Libya, they clearly do not at this point; they are a collection of Cyrenaica-based tribal leaders, notables, and former military personnel that leaves Tripolitania in the cold.

Don't fall into Qaddafi's trap. Although the no-fly-zone option has seemingly become the lodestar for many in judging the administration's response to events in Libya, it is in fact a red herring and should not be pursued. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is correct in suggesting that it introduces more problems than it solves in the immediate future. Imposing a no-fly zone at the request of what is now a Cyrenaica-based leadership or, even worse, getting weapons into the hands of rebels in that area, as some have blithely suggested, is a recipe for long-term disaster in light of the country's fractured governance. Further military involvement in Libya would only reinforce the power of Qaddafi's narrative of resistance to foreign occupation and Western duplicity -- a narrative that many Libyans, quite contrary to what we may believe in the West, actually subscribe to. Obama is correct in resisting any direct U.S. involvement.

Take it slow. Because of Qaddafi's evisceration of all political and social institutions, Libya will be severely lacking in even the basic understandings of how modern, representative governments work. The natural impulse of Westerners will be to insist on elections, as soon as possible. But elections without the prerequisites for a modern democracy in place -- and here Libya will be found profoundly deficient -- are hollow and counterproductive. Thoughtful Libyans are unlikely to be impressed with calls for early elections in a country where even the most basic checks and balances to make a democratic system work are not yet in place. Better to take things slowly. And with its vast experience of political capacity-building through a large number of government agencies, the United States is in a unique position to help create a sustainable network of civil, social, and political institutions that could help build the foundations of a democratic Libya.

Human rights matter... The United States should obviously support all humanitarian efforts the international community organizes on behalf of Libya, as well as all multilateral efforts to hold the Qaddafi regime responsible and accountable for the crimes it has committed against its own citizens. The military airlift of refugees currently underway is a positive sign, as is the International Criminal Court's involvement. But the United States could go further and advocate the early establishment of a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the country once Qaddafi is gone. Libya is a tribal society. Such societies have long memories, and 40 years of Qaddafi's rule made some collaboration with the regime virtually unavoidable for almost everyone. In thinking about helping to rebuild Libya, any actor who can help prevent the settling of scores will be seen as a valuable interlocutor.

... and so does oil. The economic reconstruction of Libya's economy after four decades of inefficient state management and cronyism could provide a final focus for U.S. expertise. Almost 95 percent of Libya's current income is derived from oil (and natural gas). Oil, and how the proceeds from oil sales are distributed, will be crucial for all sides, no matter how Libya is rebuilt. This will require a number of creative solutions to keep the country unified. The United States could be helpful in mediating and suggesting a number of ways out of the conundrums Libya will encounter in this regard -- perhaps by suggesting a federal formula that provides incentives for the different provinces and tribes to work together, rather than go their own way.

For the first time since independence in 1951, Libyans at the end of their war of attrition will be asked to create a modern state, one that provides checks and balances between its citizens and those who rule over them. Four decades of fragmentation of the country's society and the competition for the country's massive oil reserves will make a consensus around such a creation exceedingly difficult. The United States can help immensely by providing wise council and expertise. Anything beyond that will eventually be seen by most Libyans as self-interested, no matter how selfless or in the greater interest of Libyans the United States may attempt to portray it.

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Peter King's Witch Hunt

Congress's anti-terrorism hearings risk tarring the entire Muslim American community.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, will begin a series of public hearings on the "radicalization" of Muslim Americans on March 10. King has adopted an ominous tone for the proceedings, basing them on the premise that the Muslim American community is dangerously prone to radicalization and has been systematically uncooperative with law enforcement. "With al Qaeda trying to recruit from within their community," King told a reporter in December, "it's important that they cooperate."

Civil rights advocates and religious leaders of all faiths are particularly concerned that the hearings will only serve to advance pervasive myths about Muslim Americans' support for extremist violence. A broad coalition of 80 leaders, representing all major faiths and denominations, recently issued a statement urging King to cancel the proposed hearings. They made the case that the hearings would only undermine American values and jeopardize national security. "[W]e fear your hearings will only sow greater distrust and division at a time when unity and moral courage are needed," read the letter.

Things could be worse -- but not by much. King has thankfully declined to call any known anti-Muslim activists with little or no expertise in the subject, such as Pamela Geller or Frank Gaffney, to testify. But he did originally plan to feature American Enterprise Institute fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is on record claiming that "Islam is a cult," and Fox News analyst Walid Phares, a figure with ties to violent sectarian Lebanese militias. He will also call other dubious "experts" to testify, such as American Islamic Forum for Democracy founder Zuhdi Jasser, who has been featured in alarmist films such as the Clarion Fund's The Third Jihad and America at Risk: The War With No Name -- films that dishonestly attempt to portray Muslims as followers of a violent and subversive faith bent on international domination.

But even with this pernicious cast of characters, King himself may be the greatest threat to a fact-based discussion of the status of the Muslim community in the United States. With no apparent evidence or study, he has stated that as many as 85 percent of American mosques are controlled by "radical imams," that there are "too many mosques in this country," and -- incredibly -- that Muslims are "an enemy living amongst us."

Such broad-sweeping statements could never be made about any other religious group. Even just a few short years ago, responsible political leaders of both parties would have avoided such sweeping generalizations about Muslim Americans and Islam. As recently as the 2000 elections, both parties openly courted Muslim American voters -- who eventually voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush.

But in the ensuing decade, a number of factors have conspired to take anti-Muslim sentiment into the mainstream. The tragedy of the 9/11 attacks, the departure of Bush -- who warned repeatedly to separate the few violent terrorists from the vast majority of peace-loving Muslims -- and the persistent smears about President Barack Obama's faith have all served to increase American suspicion of Islam. And today, some politicians have cynically sought to exploit such fears.

There is more at stake here than Muslim Americans' feelings. National security and counter-terrorism experts fear that lending an official sanction to an effort to blame an entire religious community for the acts of a few terrorists will play into the hands of al Qaeda propagandists and recruiters who are determined to perpetuate the myth of a war between Islam and the West.

Responding to these concerns, House Committee on Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) wrote a letter to King on Feb. 1 requesting that the hearings include "a broad-based examination of domestic extremist groups regardless of their ideological underpinnings." But one week later, King rejected Thompson's request outright.

Of course, most people within Muslim communities in the United States abhor violent extremism. But one thing is abundantly clear: Terrorist recruiters attempt to exploit any source of alienation from the West that they can find, whether it's the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, the presence of U.S. troops in "Muslim" lands, or the collateral damage of drone attacks in Pakistan. Up until now, Muslim Americans have differed from their European coreligionists in their absence of internal alienation for al Qaeda recruiters to exploit.

This dynamic is at risk of changing, however. With the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, no resolution in sight to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Obama administration's inability to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, some young and disaffected Muslims could grow increasingly vulnerable to the extremists' call. Take for example the self-styled cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, now based in Yemen and perhaps al Qaeda's most effective current recruiter, who brought the Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, would-be Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and others into the terrorist fold. American-born, Internet-savvy and fluent in both English and Arabic, Awlaki targets his hateful and violent online message at desperate and confused Muslim Americans, attempting to convince them that the United States is implacably hostile to their faith. King risks reinforcing these malignant conspiracy theories, ceding yet another propaganda victory to the United States' enemies.

The hearings could also foster mistrust between law enforcement agencies and Muslim communities, thereby weakening a crucial link in efforts to combat terrorism. Although King may believe otherwise, the Muslim community in the United States has cooperated and partnered with law enforcement for years. Tips from Muslim Americans have led directly to the foiling of a number of murderous plots. According to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Muslim communities have helped U.S. security officials prevent more than 40 percent of al Qaeda plots threatening the United States since the 9/11 attacks. In the past year, that number spiked to three-quarters of all such plots.

Potential terrorist attacks that have been foiled with Muslim help include the arrest of five Northern Virginia men accused of attempting to join the Taliban and the May 2010 Times Square bomb plot, which was foiled when a Muslim vendor notified police of a suspicious-looking vehicle. These examples highlight the importance of community-oriented policing by U.S. law enforcement agencies. Why poison this crucial relationship through misguided and alarmist hearings?

To be fair, there is a chance that the hearings will serve as an opportunity to shed light on the reality of the terrorist threat. King's recently announcement that Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslim Congressmen, will testify are welcome signs.

But the risk that the hearing will reinforce dubious religious stereotypes and stir already high levels of anti-Muslim sentiment outweighs the potential benefits. If the hearings devolve into a political circus, here's hoping that sensible Americans will be willing to stand up for the rights and dignity of the Muslim American community.

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