What Should the West Do about Libya?

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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Libya’s strongman Muammar Qadhafi appears willing to fight on against Libya’s own citizens, prolonging the battle between government forces and nearly unarmed rebels. Voices from the region and abroad are calling for a variety of measures to prevent further deterioration of the situation.

The Editorial in the Saudi daily Arab News urges the Arab League to become involved and authorize a military intervention to protect the demonstrators: “The people of Libya are under attack and need protection. Now. Not in a few weeks’ time. By then countless thousands could be dead….They need armed protection. That means military intervention. That has to come, can only come, from other Arab states. The Arab League needs to meet and authorize immediate action. It is the only body that can do it. It has legitimacy and a right to take the decision….A new Arab world is being born, one where freedom and responsibility go hand in hand and where Arabs are seen to deal with and resolve Arab problems. It must not falter so soon. Arabs must come to the help of their Libyan brothers and sisters.”

The Gulf News editorial criticizes the lack of real action on the part of world powers and urges them to act without delay. The editorial reminds world leaders that “[t]his is not a time to sit on the fence. Even if Gaddafi was recently considered to be an esteemed friend, his unleashing of warplanes on his own people should force his friends to tell Gaddafi that he has to go….The silence of the world powers is deafening. We cannot allow this massacre to continue. We urge the US, the European Union, and the UN not to turn a blind eye to this bloodbath.”

The Lebanese Daily Star editorial is equally damning of Western inaction: “While the international media has relished the opportunity to describe the insanity of Tripoli’s leader, much less scrutiny has been devoted to the bizarre stance of the U.S. and leading European powers, which are offering heartfelt statements of….disapproval. No rage. No embarrassment. No determination to do anything of consequence….Unless the world’s leading powers act seriously to curtail the violence, they should be considered hypocrites, and complicit in the daily atrocities that are taking place in Libya.”

Amid these critiques of Western lack of spine and the Arab League’s weak response, the Jordan Times editorial worries that the UN Security Council decision “to adopt a ‘statement’ rather than a resolution on the situation in Libya may send the wrong signal to both the people and the government of that country….On the other hand, the Arab League failed to go even as far as the UN in reacting to the violence in Libya. It simply suspended Libya’s membership, a step that falls short of what is needed in such a situation…. If the fear of some of the league members is that a more forceful measure would establish a precedent, then the Arab organization fails to prove it is a relevant institution with a mandate to protect the peoples of the Arab world.”

In a sign that Islamists are recognizing the shifting balance in the region, the Islamic Movement for Change issued a statement published in the Egyptian daily Asharq Alawsat urging military action against Qadhafi. The statement goes so far as to “call on Arab states and the international community to intervene and aid the Libyan protestors….The Libyan Islamic Movement for Change statement said that it was calling for foreign intervention even though ‘we are aware of the sensitivity of this call and the desire of our people not to see any foreign interference on Libyan soil.’”

Some in the media, however, have chosen not to take a position or even to caution against any action in Libya. The Pakistani International News editorial limits itself to simply reporting the facts on the ground and the high degree of uncertainty about the final outcome: “It is no exaggeration to say that we look today at a world undergoing profound change, a change no less impactful than the breakup of the Soviet Union – and laced with just as many uncertainties.”

Similarly, an article in the pages of the official Iranian Press Tv daily, written by Tahereh Ghanaati, only goes so far as to raise questions about the likelihood of action from the UN or other regional actors. Ghanaati writes, “As the death toll rises, we wonder what will happen. What will the Libyans actually gain from their sacrifice? Will their country, like Tunisia and Egypt before it, gain its freedom, or is this uprising doomed to ultimate defeat?….Can the United Nations — or, for that matter, anyone — do something to avert the catastrophe?….It doesn’t appear to be likely. As things stand, Gaddafi will most probably not give an inch, and the protesters seem to be willing to pay whatever price required for freedom. Unless someone is able to intervene, Libya is in for an unprecedented bloodbath.”

Others in the region, however, have expressed their disapproval of any military action or even sanctions against the Libyan regime. The Turkish Hürriyet Daily News reports, “As Turkey continues to evacuate its citizens from crisis-hit Libya, the country’s prime minister has spoken out against imposing sanctions on Tripoli, saying such measures would only punish the Libyan people. Following an EU decision Wednesday to prepare the way for possible sanctions due to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s violent suppression of anti-government protests, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he opposed the idea.”

On the pages of Haaretz, Israeli commentators have also expressed their preference for non-interference in Libya. Yakir Elkariv fears that involvement in Libya would lead to a worse outcome than Iraq, arguing, “Why shouldn’t the whole world end its indifference and enlist for the cause of the brave masses fighting to free their country from the burden of a cruel tyrant abusing them for four decades now? Why not? Because, just like many other good ideas replete with good intentions, even if it starts wonderfully, it shall end badly….This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to offer help, yet this time we can do it in a different way — without tanks and fighter jets, but rather, using other, quieter means: funding and supporting resistance groups, or formulating a secret proposal that would ensure the future of Gaddafi and his loved ones in exchange for his quiet departure.”

Ari Shavit also suggests that, rather than worry about Libya, the United States should be more concerned about the aftermath of these uprisings for the balance of power in the region: “For three weeks, most of the Western media told us that the Tahrir Square revolution was the faceless revolution of the Google generation. But on February 18, 2011, when a million Egyptians celebrated their liberation in Cairo’s central square, it turned out that the revolution’s face is that of the fanatic Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. If the Western powers don’t come to their senses quickly, they could discover that the face of the new Middle East is al-Qaradawi; Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The face of those who are trying to turn the winds of change blowing across the Middle East into a violent, fanatic hurricane.”

However, Ian Birrell in The Guardian suggests that it is time for the “international community [to] get over the foolishness of the 2003 invasion and take swift action against Gaddafi.…For it is possible the only solution is a rapid intervention led by perhaps Egypt or Tunisia, whose armies have won respect in recent weeks, to winkle Gaddafi out of his air base and end his appalling regime. It would have to be endorsed by the Arab League, and such events are highly dangerous and unpredictable. The alternative, however, may be worse.”

While their neighbors in France have limited their concerns to the financial consequences of the turmoil in Libya, in Germany there is general agreement that Europe must take credible action against Libya. The German daily Der Spiegel summarizes the thrust of the major German opinion-makers: “What future awaits Libya? Several Western leaders hope it is one without dictator Moammar Gadhafi.…German commentators argue it may be time for a European intervention….Several European governments are looking into options at their disposal to put an end to the ongoing violence in Libya….German commentators argue on Thursday that it is time for Europe to take action.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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