Is Libya A Litmus Test For The Arab World?

The debate over Libya does not break down along ideological lines. Linda Wertheimer talks to two liberals who disagree over whether the U.S. should be intervening in Libya. Phyllis Bennis, the director of the New Internationalism Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, opposes the allied military action. Marc Lynch, who writes for Foreign Policy and heads the Middle East studies program at The George Washington University, is in favor.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Last week on this program we spoke to two Republicans who disagree on Libya. First, a veteran diplomat from the Bush administration, John Negroponte, who supports the military intervention.

Mr. JOHN NEGROPONTE (Former Director of National Intelligence): We're creating this no-fly zone so that the situation can stabilize, the opposition has a chance to survive, the civilians aren't being slaughtered by Mr. Gadhafi. But the next phase is going to involve other types of action.

WERTHEIMER: Another Bush administration veteran, Richard Haass, opposes what the president is doing.

Mr. RICHARD HAASS (Council on Foreign Relations): I don't believe our interests there are close to being vital. I also don't think this is designed in a way that people have thought through what happens after the airstrikes.

WERTHEIMER: People on the left are also divided. We'll talk next with Phyllis Bennis at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Welcome to our program.

Ms. PHYLLIS BENNIS (Institute for Policy Studies): Thanks very much. Good to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: Also with us, Marc Lynch, who heads the Middle East studies program at George Washington University and writes for Foreign Policy magazine. Good morning.

Professor MARC LYNCH (George Washington University): Thanks for having us.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Marc, let's begin with you. After President Obama's speech on Libya, you wrote a piece defending him, saying he had to do it. Why?

Prof. LYNCH: Well, I think that what happened in between when this crisis broke out and when Obama and his NATO allies decided to act was that the military situation changed on the ground. And we were looking at tens of thousands of people being slaughtered while the world watched. The United States would've been blamed for it and the United States should've been blamed for it.

MONTAGNE: Phyllis Bennis, what about you?

Ms. BENNIS: I have to disagree at the notion that our government or any government responds purely to humanitarian motives. The reality is if we were so concerned about humanitarian motives, we would have done other non-military things, both in Libya and perhaps more significantly in places like Bahrain or Yemen, way before it ever got to this crisis.

WERTHEIMER: Well, the United States has already put quite stringent sanctions on Libya. What else was there to do in Libya?

Ms. BENNIS: There was a lot to do. We can't forget that from 2003 until a month ago Gadhafi was our guy. The U.S. had embraced him. Not as much as the Europeans but significantly. U.S. oil companies, as well as European oil companies, were right in there. So there were things that could and should have been done long ago, because repression in Libya is not a new phenomenon.

WERTHEIMER: The president talked about this in two different ways. He talked about it as a humanitarian intervention, and he also talked about how the United States feels that it would be in its interests if Gadhafi were to step down. That's two different things. Are you at all concerned that we could be headed in a quagmire-ish direction?

Prof. LYNCH: Well, I'm very concerned about that. And I think that the weakest part of the administration's response has been trying to figure out what the end game's going to be. It's very difficult to imagine an acceptable outcome that involves Gadhafi staying in power. But for diplomatic reasons, they can't say so. I think that right now we have a great deal of Arab support and international legitimacy for what we're doing.

But in my conversations with both Arab intellectual leaders and with Libyan opposition figures American troops on the ground is absolutely unacceptable.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that anything that the president is talking about can actually be made to happen without troops, Phyllis Bennis?

Ms. BENNIS: I think that there is clearly a difference between having troops on the ground and having this kind of military engagement. But I think as far as people in Libya and in the Arab world and the rest of the world, the distinction is not all that great. What we're looking at is already mission creep. We first heard that this was going to be just a no-fly zone, then it was a no-fly zone with airstrikes against imminent attacks on civilians. Now it's airstrikes in places like very distant military bases, airstrikes on barracks where there are Libyan troops not engaged in fighting, and in fact we've seen what we've saw in Iraq in 1991 that was called a turkey shoot, where retreating fighters and retreating tanks were attacked by French and U.S. warplanes.

WERTHEIMER: Richard Haass, who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations - we heard from him earlier - he said on our program that he doesn't see any reason to be confident that the people who are opposing Mr. Gadhafi are people that we would be happy to see heading a government in Libya. That we don't really know who they are or what they stand for, and we might not like it if they succeed. Do you have that concern?

Ms. BENNIS: I think that like all of the other parts of the Arab spring, this uprising is of a wide range of people across Libya. There are people there that I might like and people I don't like. But it's not my call. I'm a Jewish girl from California. I don't live in Libya. That's not my right to say who they are, who gets to take power. The difference is for the U.S. government or any other government to embrace these people and start fighting for them, then we need to be concerned, whether it's al-Qaida forces, whether it's former CIA-backed contras, which is what we're now hearing are part of the new leadership of the opposition - all of those are of serious concern to the government.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that's a problem, Marc Lynch?

Prof. LYNCH: Well, anything could be a problem. But I think that Libya had become a litmus test for the Arab world and people are watching very carefully to see what happens. Right now that means that if the United States had stood by and let people be slaughtered in Benghazi, this would've been a horrible impact on America's standing in the region.

WERTHEIMER: Where do you stand on the possibility that the United States and others will decide to start arming these rebels?

Prof. LYNCH: I think that the idea of us arming the rebels is a bad idea. We've been down that route before, it hasn't worked. On the other hand, what's really dangerous is where one side - in this case, Gadhafi - is able to get access to weapons and his opponents are not. And so I think what we don't want to be doing is artificially preventing one side from getting what it needs, but I don't think we should be in the business of arming them.

WERTHEIMER: Phyllis Bennis, what do you think about the possibility of arming the opposition?

Ms. BENNIS: It would give the U.S. way more power and influence in a post-Gadhafi Libya than it deserves.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much to both of you.

Ms. BENNIS: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Phyllis Bennis is with the Institute for Policy Studies. She joined us in our studio, along with Marc Lynch, who heads Middle East studies at George Washington University.

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