Obama Administration Faces Tough Choices On Libya

Shadi Hamid, director of research, Brookings Doha Center
Ted Koppel, commentator
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director, Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division

As tensions in Libya grow, the White House says it is considering all options to respond to the unrest. Some have called for economic sanctions or a no-fly zone to prevent the use of aircraft against Libyan civilians, while others argue for the U.S. to stay out of the conflict entirely.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Moammar Gadhafi shows no signs that he's prepared to give up power in Libya, and forces loyal to the dictator seem ready to carry out his threat to fight to the last bullet.

President Obama and many other leaders condemn attacks on anti-government protestors, and many worry what may happen if large numbers answer the call to demonstrate in the capital tomorrow.

At the moment, the United States and other countries are focused on getting their citizens out of the country in chaotic circumstances, but one meeting has already been held at the United Nations Security Council. President Obama will be speaking later today with the leaders of Britain and France. European leaders say they will consider economic sanctions. The president will - the White House says all options are on the table.

Should the U.S. impose sanctions on Moammar Gadhafi, freeze bank accounts, send humanitarian aid? Should U.S., NATO or the U.N. impose a no-fly zone to stop the use of jets and helicopters against civilians? Should we just stay out?

Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, options to deal with Somali pirates, who hold hundreds of sailors and dozens of ships hostage. But first, Libya, and we begin in Qatar with Shadi Hamid. He directs the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, and Shadi, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. SHADI HAMID (Director of Research, Brookings Doha Center): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: The U.S. stayed out of the crises in Egypt and Tunisia. Is Libya different?

Mr. HAMID: Libya's a whole different ballgame. The appropriate model here isn't Egypt or Tunisia but rather Bosnia or Kosovo. We're seeing essentially mass slaughter, there's no other way to describe it, with some estimates saying the death toll is rising to 3,000.

So we're talking about an unprecedented situation. We haven't seen this kind of violence in the Arab world really since Saddam's Iraq or Syria 1982.

So considering the gravity of the situation, the U.S. and the international community should rise to the occasion and come up with some bold responses. And unfortunately, we haven't really seen that yet.

CONAN: Bold responses such as?

Mr. HAMID: Well, there's a number of options that are within the realm of possibility. I mean, NATO could move to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Troops could be deployed along the Libyan border to ensure that mercenaries do not enter Libya.

We can talk about more aggressive action in terms of seizing assets of senior Libyan leaders. There has been some movement on that the last day or two, but that's - it's a little bit too little, too late. It's been almost a week since these protests started, and only now we're talking about freezing of assets and only now are we talking about sanctions.

If the situation gets even worse, and we're talking about a full-on civil war with thousands upon thousands being killed, then I think we have to escalate a little bit and consider real intervention, and hopefully we won't get to that point.

It seems that the protestors are gaining more and more momentum. But if it gets to that point, we may have to look at something more decisive.

CONAN: And as you're well aware, the forces capable of intervening effectively in Libya are all forces that could be characterized as colonialist and former colonialist or neo-colonialist: the United States and Western Europe. And wouldn't you fear that this would sort of vindicate Mr. Gadhafi's rhetoric?

Mr. HAMID: Well, he's already accusing the protestors of being American stooges either way. So I don't think it'll matter one way or the other. And no one really takes him seriously.

Yes, there will be a lot of people - and we heard that now - that we don't want another Iraq and the U.S. can't be trusted. And yes, there is a point to be made there.

The U.S. has a pretty bad history when it comes to supporting democracy in the Arab world, and people should be concerned. But just because we failed so much in the future doesn't mean we shouldn't do what's right this time around.

I mean, that's really what the international community is supposed to do, and that's what the U.N., in theory, was established to do, and that is to stop and prevent crimes against humanity and war crimes. And we are certainly seeing crimes against humanity in Libya today.

CONAN: Also with us today, NPR commentator Ted Koppel, who joins us on the line from his home in Maryland. Ted, always nice to have you with us.

TED KOPPEL: Always nice to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And should the United States take action in Libya?

KOPPEL: You know, whenever I hear what are clearly the right humanitarian instincts I worry a little bit because I have learned over the course of a long lifetime of covering events like this to fear the law of unintended consequences.

And you and I were talking a little earlier, Neal. I want to go back to 1992, when some video that I believe was on NBC that showed the starvation in Somalia convinced then-President George H.W. Bush that he should send the Marines over for what I believe was one of the most purely humanitarian missions in American history, and that was to feed people, to make sure that there would not be hundreds of thousands of starving dead.

The end result was that we got involved in the politics over there, in the fighting over there. A few months later, when George Bush was no longer president, President Clinton was running the country then, we had the famous Black Hawk Down incident and an American soldier, dead soldier, being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

President Clinton not only pulled all the Americans out of Somalia, leaving behind an even worse situation than the one than we found, but because of what had happened in Somalia, we found ourselves then a few weeks later, when the events in Rwanda were getting out of hand, where a little bit of U.S. involvement might have made a difference, we were snake-bitten. We had such fear of going in that the end result was that 800,000 people died in Rwanda.

Unless someone can tell me what the results are going to be if we go in there and what it is we do after Gadhafi is - I assume the purpose here is to finalize the overthrow of Gadhafi. Who's going to run the country? Who's going to occupy the country? How long would we have to stay in the country?

We did - look, I want to take a breath here and give you a chance to come back in, Neal, but I worry about this sort of thing.

CONAN: Shadi Hamid, these are all questions that can linger. Yes, you could start with a no-fly zone, but, well, this thing can escalate very easily.

Mr. HAMID: Well, I'm glad that Mr. Koppel mentioned Rwanda, and I think the other examples we could raise are Bosnia and Kosovo, where we acted too little, too late, and as a result, many more died than had to. So there is an argument there that sometimes you have to intervene early, before things get out of hand.

Yes, Somalia didn't work out so well, but around the same time, after the first Gulf War, when Shias were uprising against Saddam Hussein and were close to overthrowing his regime, the U.S. and the international community stood by and did nothing, and the rest is history. So there -the examples go both ways.

And I'm not talking about the U.S. staying in or some kind of occupation. No one is really talking about that right now, and really, we're not really even talking about full-on military intervention, either.

But if Gadhafi is overthrown, then the Libyans will have to determine how they want to proceed, and Egypt and Tunisia provide models for going forward. I don't think anyone is talking about America getting stuck in Libya. What we're talking about is providing some assistance so that Gadhafi can fall.

CONAN: And Ted, would there - I'm sorry, go ahead.

KOPPEL: If I may, Neal, just a couple of points. First of all, I'm glad that Shadi raised the issue of our first engagement against Iraq. That was when they took over Kuwait. You may recall that the first President Bush decided not to go in all the way, and while Shadi correctly points out that some terrible things happened to the Shia in the aftermath of that...

CONAN: And the Kurds.

KOPPEL: I'm sorry?

CONAN: And the Kurds.

KOPPEL: And the Kurds, absolutely. There was some sound geopolitical thinking that went into that. And if you look at the situation that you find today, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which everyone refers to as though it were an unadulterated positive, it was not.

For many years, the United States supported Iraq against Iran precisely because it was the one power in the region that was able to keep Iran in check, and what we have done by overthrowing Saddam - and Lord knows he was a horrible human being, and it's a good thing that he is no longer alive - but the geopolitical situation on the ground and U.S. interests have not been served by the fact that Iran is now the dominant power in the Persian Gulf and that its power is growing day by day. And we may see it grow even more as each of these uprisings takes effect.

We have yet to have even the slightest inkling of what the Persian Gulf is going to look like a year from now or two years from now. And rather than seeing these humanitarian instincts of just stepping in as quickly as we can, I'd like to see a carefully - or hear a carefully thought-out strategy for how it is that U.S. interests are going to be served in that part of the world.

Getting in, we have discovered, is easy. Getting out can be terribly painful and a very long process.

CONAN: Shadi Hamid, we'll hear from you and then take a break and get some phone calls in.

Mr. HAMID: Sure. Well, overturning Gadhafi's regime in Libya will almost certainly serve American interests. Gadhafi has not been a friend of the U.S. And another thing to consider: If the U.S. is remembered as staying silent while a massacre happens, what will that do for our credibility, which is already pretty bad, and our reputation in the region?

Is that the way we want to be remembered during this Arab democratic moment? I don't think that's how we want to be remembered.

KOPPEL: Oh, we stand by - Shadi, we stand by all the time. Two, three, possibly more, million people have died in Congo. The United States has done absolutely nothing to prevent the death of all those millions of people. Countries, nations...

Mr. HAMID: So let's learn from that lesson this time, and let's not repeat the mistakes of the past. We have an opportunity to develop a new relationship with the Arab world and show Arabs that we care about their freedom and their rights. We haven't done that for the last five decades. It is time to change.

CONAN: We're talking about what the U.S. should do with Libya. The White House says all options are on the table. What do you think: military intervention, stay out, something in between? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll get to your calls after a short break.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

This email from Josh in Charlotte, North Carolina: You asked what the U.S. should do to halt Gadhafi's brutality on his people. The U.S. and its allies have turned a blind eye to this heartless and ruthless dictator for decades. Why should we act now?

We're too busy fighting an invisible and imaginary enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our sense of outrage over current events in Libya is an amazing contradiction of principles.

This from Jordan in Washington, D.C.: The revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa have been developing quicker than the White House can respond. By the time the Obama administration comes out with a policy on Libya, Gadhafi will likely already be toppled, and a range of post-conflict challenges will need to be addressed. Here's to hoping the administration can finally get ahead of the situation as it unfolds.

And this is Albert, who wrote on our blog: The U.S., especially the current administration, should stay on the sideline and not make things worse for everybody, including the U.S. So far, the administration looks like gamblers who close their eyes, thinking of a number before rolling the dice.

They, like most in the media, know next to nothing about Arabs, their culture, their history. Wishful thinking or deciding for others what's good for them should not be the guiding light. Whatever will happen in any Arab country is not going to be what we call democracy as we know it.

We're talking about what the U.S. should do in Libya with Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, and with NPR commentator Ted Koppel.

Let's see if we can get a caller on the line, and let's go to - this is John(ph), John with us from Columbus.

JOHN (Caller): Oh, hi there.

CONAN: Hi there.

JOHN: Listening to the last two emails is most interesting in that it refers to this whole thing. We have to look at American interests. When we mention American interests, they may not coincide with what the people there think and what their history has been with them.

That said, I think that the best thing we can do right now is to freeze the assets of Gadhafi so that he can no longer fund his mercenaries, if that is what he is doing, and that he cannot continue to harm people that way.

As far as the no-fly zone, I would suggest no because we may have to shoot somebody down, and then we are the bad guys. We need to stay away from military force there.

CONAN: Shadi Hamid, that is indeed the difficulty with no-fly zones. Once you've established, that is an implicit threat, and if somebody challenges it, you have to open fire.

Mr. HAMID: Yes, I mean, that's sort of the idea. Here's the thing. There's no real action here that is risk-free. And I think, you know, sometimes you have to take risks and take bold action, and there's no guarantee that it's going to work out entirely as planned.

And I'm not denying that. All I'm saying is that there is an opportunity here. It's different than Iraq. It's different than some of the other examples that were brought up in the emails, because Libyans do want help.

It's not as if we're deciding their destiny for them. They have made very clear what they want, that's an end to this regime and freedom and democracy for their people.

So this isn't about America saying what's right or what's wrong. It's about helping people realize what they already want and what they've already said they want to the whole world.

And it's remarkable to me that something like that would be controversial. We can disagree on means and how to get there, but I think the end should be clear, that we have to do whatever we can to support democracy in Libya and elsewhere in the region.

CONAN: Might not that be to broker some sort of easy - people talk about freezing the assets of Moammar Gadhafi and the other Libyan leaders. At some point, don't you want to point out to these people that the South of France is very nice this time of year, wouldn't they like to leave, peacefully, now?

Mr. HAMID: You mean Gadhafi living in France?

CONAN: Well, maybe if he would leave as opposed to fighting to the last bullet, maybe you might let him keep a few millions.

Mr. HAMID: That would be wonderful, and maybe Venezuela would be a better destination for him.

CONAN: Also very nice this time of the year.

Mr. HAMID: Exactly. But the problem here is that Gadhafi has made, unequivocally clear, that he and his family want to fight to the very last drop of blood. He said that on television in front of the whole world.

So it's not - we don't have to parse his words or wonder what his intentions are. He's made that clear. And it's really quite unprecedented for a leader of a country to tell the whole world that he plans to massacre his own people. So again, we're dealing with a unique set of circumstances, and that requires a unique set of tools.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, whatever is going to happen, the United States is unlikely to do it alone and would probably seek support of the United Nations, certainly support of NATO at the very minimum. These things take time.

KOPPEL: They do take time, and I would like to point out there is one action that clearly has to be taken and has to be taken immediately, and that is getting the American citizens who are still in Libya out of Libya.

I realize that the government is trying to do that even as we speak, and they're having some difficulty because of bad weather. I gather that they chartered a ferry to get people out.

What I am most terrified of, at this point, quite frankly, is that the American citizens and other foreign citizens who are still in Libya will be taken and held hostage.

If I may make one other point: Moammar Gadhafi has been a whack-job, a madman, for as long as I have been aware of him. I've interviewed him a number of times. He was crazy 25 years ago, 30 years ago, when I interviewed him for the first time, and he still is.

He was brutal to his people 10 years ago, 12 years ago, and he still is. There is absolutely nothing new about Moammar Gadhafi, nothing that we should have discovered about him in these last couple of weeks, that should cause us to say that the United States needs to take military action there.

You want to cut off his funds, go ahead and cut off his funds. I don't think that's going to make any difference to him. At this point, he realizes that he is cornered. He has his back against the wall. I think he will fight to the last drop of everybody else's blood until finally he is killed.

But the idea that the United States should become involved militarily, either alone or in concert with NATO, the United Nations, I find actually beyond understanding.

CONAN: Let's go next to Sana(ph). Sana is with us from New Orleans, and I hope I'm not mispronouncing your name too badly.

SANA (Caller): It is right, Neal. Libya is a very different (unintelligible), and it's very different from any other nation. He is feeling the pressure. But here are some ideas. He might drop bombs on oil field that cause chaos to the oil world. You see the stock market.

Three ideas, solutions, one from inside Libya, saying that Nelson Mandela serves as a father figure for Gadhafi. He's the only one who can influence. The eastern part, they're talking about maybe they enlist the army, the Egyptian army, to help because he could massacre them with airplanes. Last, Russia could be a help and the EU. Those are four solutions.

CONAN: All right. Sana, thanks very much for the suggestions, and I think if diplomacy and Nelson Mandela could work in agreement to end the violence in Libya, well, he - the honors that would shower upon him, even those that have already showered upon him, would be amazing. But thank you very much...

KOPPEL: I'm afraid he's too old and frail at this point. It's - Nelson Mandela, I'm afraid, is beyond that, can't do it anymore.

CONAN: Joining us now on the phone from Tunisia, where she is en route to Libya, is Sarah Lee Wilson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. Sarah, nice to have you with us on the program today.

Ms. SARAH LEE WILSON (Executive Director, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And I know that your organization is deeply concerned with the violence continuing in Libya. Should the United States, should the United Nations, should NATO do anything at this point?

Ms. WILSON: Well, there are several things they should do and that they should do immediately. And I think some of them you guys might have discussed already, since I'm just joining the program.

But they collectively amount to putting as much pressure, not just on Gadhafi, but on those around Gadhafi - those in the military around Gadhafi who support him and are continuing to be loyal to him, to understand that there will be a cost to their loyalty, and to understand that at this point in time, their interests may no longer lie in continuing to be loyal to Gadhafi. Because however much a madman he is, however committed he might be to staying until the death, if - he can't get very far without those around him.

And so there is a big opportunity for the international community, now, to put pressure on all of those who are supporting Gadhafi.

CONAN: What would meaningful pressure amount to?

Ms. WILSON: Well, for one thing, there could be a very strong message about accountability, a message that says that not only the highest-level commander but the lowest-level private can and will be held accountable for crimes they commit against their own citizens for massacres of their own citizens while Gadhafi may well be in some cushy villa in Caracas.

I think sending a message that this is going to implicate them and endanger them may make them recalculate where their interest lies immediately. And that, of course, is in addition to further isolating, again, not just Gadhafi, but those around him with sanctions and travel bans and asset freezes. And, of course, there should be consideration of some kind of an embargo.

CONAN: If the U.S. and other countries were to provide humanitarian aid, wouldn't that put humanitarian workers at risk?

Ms. WILSON: Well, I think that humanitarian aid has already started coming in to the eastern part of Libya. From what I understand, Medecins Sans Frontieres has already entered to the east of Libya. And I believe that the ICRC has - is at the Egyptian border and may - is about to be entering as well.

But absolutely, humanitarian aid gestures are important not just on the merits of providing urgently needed medical care to the victims of the government's attacks in the east, whose numbers, I'm sure, are going to swell as the government desperately tries to counterattack, but also to reinforce to the people of Libya that however much they might have been abandoned and left to the control of Gadhafi, however much they might personally have been hurt by the international sanctions against Libya and the international embargo on Libya, that right now the international community is behind them and supporting them.

CONAN: If that situation were to happen, if the fighting got out of hand in Tripoli, do you think the United States or other countries should intervene?

Ms. WHITSON: Well, it's not just a matter of when they should. I think they have a legal duty to intervene under the principles established in the responsibility to protect, the U.N. principle of responsibility to protect, which actually were developed in the wake of some of the tragedies where the international community failed to act, like Rwanda. So there is a legal there's a legal duty and a legal principle that the U.N. would have to adhere to.

And where there is mass atrocities or a threat of mass atrocities, the international community has an obligation to act to protect to protect civilians, to protect people from murder and massacres.

CONAN: Sarah Leah Whitson, I'm sure you know better than I, there have been any number of situations where just that has happened and the international community has done nothing.

Ms. WHITSON: There absolutely have. But that certainly don't justify doing nothing yet again, you know? We definitely need to do better than whatever failures we might have had in the past.

CONAN: You're planning to head into Libya tomorrow?

Ms. WHITSON: Well, I'm heading to the border tomorrow, to the western border, which is not - which is still under government control. So I won't be able to get into Libya as long as it remains under government control. But I am hoping that that control fails fairly rapidly and that I can actually go the short route to Tripoli.

CONAN: Well, we wish you the best of luck and thanks very much for taking this time out to speak with us tonight.

Ms. WHITSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch. We'd posted a link to her op-ed on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. What should the U.S. do about Libya?

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from Johann in Hamilton, Ontario. I'm not sure if the United States' position - the wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq supposedly for the sake of democracy at the cost of thousands of lives and billions of dollars - now there are burgeoning democracies in Egypt and Libya. The United States is a deer in the headlights. For God's sake, stick to your principles. Take out Gadhafi. Send a strong message to the other decrepit autocrats in the region.

This from Bashir(ph): It is important for the people of the Arab world to achieve democracy on their own. They have to pay the price. So for so long we have been dependent and looking on other people to solve our problems. We want to have it - we have to want it to get it. If America interferes now, it will stifle other movements in the Arab world. Stay out.

And this is from Aaron in Coal Ridge, Colorado. Where does Mr. Hamid thinks these forces are going to come from? The United States is fully occupied right now. The EU has no stomach for combat. Does Mr. Hamid understand anything about military logistics?

Shadi Hamid, where are these forces going to come from?

Mr. HAMID: Right. Well, I'm arguing that something should happen. I mean, whether or not there's the political will in the West is a different issue. And yes, there is a major question as to whether the U.S. and its allies care enough to do something about this. But that's precisely what I'm objecting to, that there isn't the stomach for humanitarian intervention when there is a duty and obligation not just according to the responsibility to protect, as Sarah Leah mentioned, but also chapter seven of the U.N. Charter, which says that the U.N. Security Council is authorized to act in cases where there is a threat to peace and security. So that's exactly the problem. Is there the political will right now? And that's an open question. So far the answer seems to be no.

CONAN: And, Ted Koppel, if you go back and listen to President Obama's speech as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, where he talked rather eloquently about the purposes of the war in Afghanistan and why that was being fought, he also spoke eloquently about the need sometimes to intervene on behalf of humanitarian values.

KOPPEL: He did. But I think sometimes the United Nations, for example, and the U.N.'s legal obligations, as you began to point out, Neal, are honored more in the breach than in their fulfillment. There is one point I would like to make with your permission...

CONAN: Sure.

KOPPEL: ...that hasn't been raised yet. And that is, I think what's going on, not just in Libya, but across the rim of North Africa and parts of the Middle East now in the Persian Gulf, is almost destined to keep more U.S. troops in Iraq than the Obama administration may have intended.

I've long believed - as you know, I've said it on this program before...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KOPPEL: ...that we're going to have 20, 30, 40 thousand U.S. troops in Iraq for some years to come. I think that has now been sealed. The concern and, of course, the great concern for the United States and its economic and political interests lie in Saudi Arabia and the danger that something similar could happen in Saudi Arabia. The need to keep U.S. forces, the 5th Fleet in Bahrain and U.S. ground forces in Iraq, is greater now than it was a month ago.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, as always, thanks very much for your time.

KOPPEL: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR's - NPR commentator Ted Koppel joined us from his home in Maryland. We'd also like to thank Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. And he joined us on the phone from there in Doha. We know it's late. Appreciate your taking time to speak with us.

Mr. HAMID: Thank you for having me.

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