Should the United States lead the western world in nation-building in Libya or should it concentrate on tackling such pressing domestic problems as joblessness and the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure?
Limiting American involvement in Libya is the better part of wisdom. Beyond saving money badly needed at home, pulling back would lessen the risk of inviting the easily aroused resentment fanned by Washington’s proven tendency to dictate what liberated countries must do.
Moreover, Libya’s new leaders already are rejecting foreign intrusion and the oil-rich country can afford to pay for its own rehabilitation.
And consider one more thing: President Barack Obama undoubtedly hurt America’s standing in Libya and elsewhere in the Muslim world by his reluctance to support the Arab Spring.
Obama, after all, had to be shamed by France and Britain to join the fight against Libya’s dictator, Moammar Gadhafi. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron recognized the surging wave the moment it started swelling. Obama, by contrast, remained conspicuously cool.
He first minced words, then let a high intelligence official predict Gadhafi “would prevail” before finally deciding “to lead from behind.” But now that Gadhafi has pretty much been discarded on history’s scrap heap, Obama — like a strutting rooster — is taking credit for the dawn. As the president tells it, he deserves credit as Libya’s liberator.
Not so. Libyans on the ground liberated Libya. While immensely grateful for the help of NATO warplanes, they still had to overcome a professional military force that fought ruthlessly and was armed with top-notch military equipment.
And now we know they also had to overcome cynical behind-the-scenes efforts by some Americans and the Chinese government to keep Gadhafi in power.
First came the disclosure that David Welch, assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, met with Gadhafi officials in early August and presented a plan to bolster Gadhafi’s image and ruin the insurgents’ profile.
Al-Jazeera producer Jamal Elshapyyad reportedly found Welch’s notes of the meeting in abandoned security service offices in Tripoli. Welch’s outline showed how Gadhafi could sway American public opinion and Congress in his favor, and The Washington Post gave the story international publicity.
Adding Welch’s offer to previously discovered evidence of extensive links between the CIA and Gadhafi’s security agency, it is conceivable that the CIA and the Obama administration still sought to keep Gadhafi in power as recently as mid-July.
In early September, Canada’s influential Globe and Mail blew the lid off a Gadhafi weapons deal with China when veteran correspondent Greame Smith detailed an attempted end-run around the United Nations’ weapons embargo.
The weapons included shoulder-carried antiaircraft missiles capable of shooting down NATO planes, rocket launchers and anti-tank missiles that were to be routed to Libya via Algeria and South Africa.
Gadhafi officials flew to Beijing on July 16 to discuss the deal and recorded the details in a memo dug up by the Canadian reporter.
The New York Times splashed his scoop in a 24-paragraph story on Sept. 4. While China confirmed the general accuracy of the account, the Times reported, “State Department, Pentagon, and intelligence officials in Washington” said they knew nothing about it and needed time to “analyze” the documents.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates initially summed up the American military role in Libya in four words: “protecting civilians — that’s it.” Now Obama needs to help Libya’s brave freedom fighters protect their budding democratic movement. He would do that best, however, by engaging Libya not with huge sums of money but with helpful tact.
For a nation trying to extract itself from two costly and prolonged conflicts in the Middle East, quiet diplomacy, indeed, would be a most prudent investment.
• Kipling is a Canadian journalist in Washington. Readers may write to him c/o the National Press Club, 13th Floor, 529 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20045; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.