Libya: Responding to the President’s Speech
Posted on 03/29/2011 @ 11:20 AM
The deteriorating situation in Libya over the past month has ignited a great deal of passionate debate about the role of the United States in the world. As a result, many people across the United States and around the world were eager to hear what President Obama would say last night in his address to the nation about U.S. foreign policy objectives in Libya. I am one of those folks.
There are myriad issues raised in the President’s speech – too many to address in one blog post. This morning I feel compelled to write about both the failure and the promise of diplomacy as a crucial element in our foreign policy toolkit.
Several excerpts from the speech may help to define part of the core problem that we face in Libya and elsewhere in the world.
“For more than four decades, the Libyan people have been ruled by a tyrant -– Muammar Qaddafi. He has denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world –- including Americans who were killed by Libyan agents.”
I agree. Yet what President Obama did not say in his speech was that President Qaddafi was able to act this way for so long because the world needed the petroleum products that Libya supplies. Not only has much of the world been ready to pay billions and billions of dollars for Libya’s oil year after year, but many countries have been more than happy to sell President Qaddafi lots of weapons in return for Libya’s oil money. Can anyone honestly say that U.S. (and other) diplomats and policy-makers didn’t suspect that Mr. Qaddafi might use the oil money to suppress and buy off his fellow Libyans, or that he might not turn those weapons on his own people? I don’t think so.
“Last month, Qaddafi’s grip of fear appeared to give way to the promise of freedom. In cities and towns across the country, Libyans took to the streets to claim their basic human rights. As one Libyan said, “For the first time we finally have hope that our nightmare of 40 years will soon be over.”
The changes happening across North Africa and the Middle East are inspiring; I was among those who hoped that the Libyan opposition would follow the lead of their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt by taking a largely non-violent approach in their quest to establish more responsive and open governance in their respective countries. However, the Libyan opposition did not.
“Faced with this opposition, Qaddafi began attacking his people. As President, my immediate concern was the safety of our citizens, so we evacuated our embassy and all Americans who sought our assistance. Then we took a series of swift steps in a matter of days to answer Qaddafi’s aggression. We froze more than $33 billion of Qaddafi’s regime’s assets. Joining with other nations at the United Nations Security Council, we broadened our sanctions, imposed an arms embargo, and enabled Qaddafi and those around him to be held accountable for their crimes. I made it clear that Qaddafi had lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead, and I said that he needed to step down from power.”
Some analysts say the opposition had no choice but to take up arms in the face of President Qaddafi’s threats. Others argue that they still had a choice.
No matter which side you come down on in this important debate, it seems to me that the failure of all Libyans to seek a nonviolent path to change is due in large part to the fact that there were slews of arms already available in Libya. An arms embargo is to be commended, even more so because it and other sanctions were done in a spirit of international cooperation. But the fact remains: we imposed an arms embargo at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute. It was too late to offset the decades-long willingness of the international community to succumb to the temptation to have the dollars we were paying for oil returned “home” in exchange for weapons.
Diplomacy was critical at such a late hour. To the Obama Administration’s credit, they did use robust international diplomacy to enact sanctions. But in the midst of the turmoil when a humanitarian and political solution was needed in Libya, we evacuated the U.S. embassy. As a result, we forfeited (or at least greatly reduced) the possibility that President Qaddafi might have be offered graceful exit before the violence escalated to where it is today, with no end in sight.
It’s not too late to increase our diplomatic efforts. An immediate step towards finding a durable, negotiated political solution in Libya would be to get all parties to agree to a ceasefire. As we seek a solution in the short-term, it’s important to remember that in the longer-term we must also find a way to re-orient our foreign policy away from oil-related business interests and the arms trade, and to rely more on diplomacy that supports the peaceful democratic and human-rights-related aspirations of people around the world.
Congress has an important role in influencing U.S. foreign policy in Libya. I urge you to write your members of Congress; we cannot afford to be silent.