March 16, 2011

U.S. and the Arab World

Iran concerns fuel U.S. wariness on Libya intervention

The Envoy
March 16, 2011

As Libyan forces continue their rapid advance against poorly equipped rebels, many within the Washington and international foreign policy community have been urging the United States to stop deliberating and back a proposed multilateral no-fly zone to curb Muammar Gadhafi's brutal crackdown.

But some in D.C. policy circles fear that humanitarian intervention in Libya could have the unintended effect of straining the international alliance trying to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, while also expanding anti-American sentiment in the volatile region. In particular, writes Jerry Seib of the Wall Street Journal, some national security hands in the Obama administration worry that a U.S.-led international military intervention in Libya would play directly into Iranian narratives about U.S. interference in the Middle East and designs on its oil fields:

Those wary of intervening, including many in the Obama administration, worry that Western intervention will play directly into the narrative Tehran's leaders have been spinning to justify cracking down on their own dissidents: that the U.S. and its Zionist allies are waiting to take advantage of any Mideast unrest to seize control of the region and its oil assets.

This Iranian narrative holds that the protesters in Tehran's streets are either active or unwitting agents of this insidious American conspiracy. Because any military intervention in Libya inevitably would be led by American forces, it would be used to further the argument. Indeed, an examination of statements by Iranian leaders in recent days shows this is precisely how they are framing the Libya question.

With Iran in position to make trouble by fomenting unrest among its Shiite brethren in nearby Bahrain, the question of how Mideast turmoil might advance Tehran's interests already loomed large. Now it figures to play more directly into the Libya debate, for Tehran is trying to play both sides of the argument, rhetorically supporting the Libyan rebels while opposing Western help for them.
However, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter--who dealt with many of the same debates about no-fly-zones and UN resolutions during the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts in the 1990s--argues that an international intervention in Libya need not be so complex:
A no-fly zone can be imposed in a matter of hours, likely with low military risk, as NATO demonstrated over Bosnia in the mid-1990s and as a coalition did over Iraq after 1991. As Gates argued, this might also require suppressing Libyan air defenses -- but that is also a relatively straightforward military proposition.

In sum, the course is clear. Washington should push for the rapid institution of a no-fly zone against the Qaddafi regime. This no-fly zone could be undertaken by NATO, the European Union, or by a "coalition of the willing" that includes the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and a few others. This could prove necessary if, despite the backing of the Arab League, the GCC, and the OIC, some NATO allies still do not want to act. Both Turkey and Germany remain reluctant -- Ankara because of the precedent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Berlin out of its historic reluctance to use force. They may have some silent partners among other NATO allies.

At the same time, the West should begin arming the rebels and trying to peel off Qaddafi supporters, by publicly declaring that those who desert Qaddafi now will not be excluded from roles in Libya's post-Qaddafi future. [...] Libyans will need the help of the West not just in getting rid of Qaddafi but also in building their lives after him
But President Barack Obama--who met with his national security team about Libya Tuesday--does not yet seem fully convinced that the United States should wade into action that would require rebuilding another Middle Eastern nation.
"The President instructed his team to continue to fully engage in the discussions at the United Nations, NATO and with partners and organizations in the region," a White House read-out stated, seemingly indicating that action on the no-fly project remains in the discussion and planning stage.
Early reports on Wednesday, however, indicated that the United States is now playing a leading role in the pending UN Security Council debate on assembling a multilateral approach to enforcing no-fly restrictions over Libya.

Among the more prominent no-fly skeptics are some key lawmakers specializing in foreign policy matters, such as Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"Given the costs of a no-fly zone, the risks that our involvement would escalate, the uncertain reception in the Arab street of any American intervention in an Arab country, the potential for civilian deaths, the unpredictability of the endgame, the strains on our military, and other factors, it is doubtful that U.S. interests would be served by imposing a no-fly zone over Libya," Lugar said Monday.

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