Obama realises US is better off with the devil it knows in Libya
America fears that a revolution in Muammar Gaddafi's nation could open the door to Islamist terrorism, writes David Frum
Would President Obama prefer a Gaddafi victory? If that sounds implausible, then just look at the record. On March 3, Obama announced that Gaddafi "must go". Two weeks have passed since then -- and more than a month since the uprising erupted on February 15. In the interim, the tide of war has turned in Gaddafi's favour. Yet Obama has done nothing to make his own words reality.
Every proposal -- from the no-fly zone and aid to rebels, to recognition of a provisional government -- has somehow become bogged down.
The administration never rejected the proposals out of hand, but it never accepted them either. And now time, so very unfortunately, has run out. Admittedly, the American government moves slowly. But it does not move this slowly.
The Obama administration may not care to admit it, but it did make a decision, and one of benefit to Gaddafi. Why? One factor was surely Obama's preference for a less activist foreign policy in general.
But there were special considerations in Libya, and they were clearly stated in a piece by General Wesley Clark for 'The Washington Post' last Friday. The former US commander in Kosovo, and a 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, wrote: "We don't have a clearly stated objective, legal authority, committed international support or adequate on-the-scene military capabilities, and Libya's politics hardly foreshadow a clear outcome."
The key phrase here is "Libya's politics". For the past few days, Washington policy circles have been worrying over a piece of research circulated last week: "On a per capita basis ... twice as many foreign fighters came to Iraq from Libya -- and specifically eastern Libya -- than from any other country in the Arabic-speaking world. Libyans were apparently more fired up to travel to Iraq to kill Americans than anyone else in the Middle East. And 74 (or 84.1pc) of the 88 Libyan fighters ... who listed their hometowns came from either Benghazi or Darnah in Libya's east."
That might not seem a statistically valid survey of public opinion inside Libya. But given the prevailing lack of information about the anti-Gaddafi insurgency, the factoid acted to corroborate fears of an Islamist takeover of Libya -- or, maybe worse, the collapse of Libya into a Somalia-on-the-Mediterranean.
Perhaps Obama reasoned something along these lines: "Yes, Gaddafi is a very bad guy. But he quit the terrorism business a decade ago and paid compensation to the families of victims of the Lockerbie bombing. He surrendered his nuclear programme in 2003. He co- operates with the EU in stopping illegal migration into Italy. He is a reliable oil supplier and a good customer for Western companies.
"It's very sad to see Gaddafi crush an uprising so brutally. But things could be worse. Tribal leaders, fighting each other, inspired by Islamic ideology -- all just 300 miles from the coast of Sicily? We could have 300,000 refugees showing up on the NATO side of the Mediterranean.
"Better stick with the devil we know. The blood-letting cannot last much longer, stability will return soon. And then we can express regret for the loss of life, offer humanitarian assistance and impose some kind of sanctions on the Gaddafi family -- at least until the fuss dies down."
Europeans who invested so much hope in Barack Obama may hesitate to accept the news that their man is not the idealist they had imagined. But Arab leaders have already got the message: Mubarak was a fool, don't resign in the face of protests, instead use force.
The king of Bahrain has learnt the lesson of Libya: he is importing Saudi troops to suppress local protesters.
Whoever called this moment the Arab 1848 had it right -- assuming, that is, that the wit remembered how the original 1848 turned out.
But let's consider what meaning the Arab 1848 has for the West. Over the past near-decade, how often have voices in Europe reproached the Bush administration for its foolish infatuation with Arab democracy? Look at what happened in the Palestinian Authority, where the locals used their votes to opt for Hamas -- and never got a chance to use them a second time. Look at what happened in Iraq, where the overthrow of a dictator opened the door to civil war, terrorism and Iranian influence. And indeed, the criticisms were powerful, as far as they went.
But Libya confronts us with the consequences of the opposite policy. As happened in Iraq in 1991, the world is acquiescing in the brutal suppression of a popular uprising by an Arab dictator. Will this violently reasserted dictatorship be "stable"? If those data on Libyan suicide bombers are correct, then Gaddafi's dictatorship has bred Islamic resistance. Will more violence intensify Libya's Islamification? And since no regime lasts forever, what will Europe face across the Mediterranean when the regime does finally go?
Libya confronts us, too, with the folly of the traditional "realist" response to Islamic radicalism: the delusion that somehow the carving of a Palestinian state out of Israel will pacify the region.
Are the boys of Benghazi fighting for Palestine? How exactly would installing a Palestinian president-for-life in east Jerusalem reconcile Libyans to a second generation of Gaddafis seizing Libya's oil wealth as their personal fortune?
Libya is Obama's Iraq in reverse. The fighting may end faster when the dictator survives. But the consequences may reveal themselves as no less ugly, no less large, and no less enduring. (© Daily Telegraph, London)