Op-Ed: A 'Huge Win' For Libyans And Obama

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Libyan rebel forces claim that the decades-long Gadhafi era is over. In an op-ed for the Atlantic Monthly, Steve Clemons applauds President Obama's intervention that helped "tilt the odds," and advises the international community to take a similar approach going forward.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host: And in Libya, rebel forces claim control of most of Tripoli. However, it's still much too early to predict what happens next. Rebels still face resistance from forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, and skirmishes and counterattacks have erupted in pockets throughout the capital city. The location of Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya for four decades, is still unclear.

\President Obama released an audio statement a few minutes ago from his vacation in Martha's Vineyard. He called the situation in Libya fluid and uncertain but stressed that Moammar Gadhafi's days in power are numbered.

President BARACK OBAMA: Good afternoon, everybody. I just completed a call with my National Security Council on the situation in Libya, and earlier today, I spoke to Prime Minister Cameron about the extraordinary events taking place there. The situation is still very fluid. There remains a degree of uncertainty, and there are still regime elements who pose a threat. But this much is clear: The Gadhafi regime is coming to an end, and the future of Libya is in the hands of its people. In just six months, the 42-year reign of Moammar Gadhafi has unraveled.

Earlier this year, we were inspired by the peaceful protests that broke out across Libya. This basic and joyful longing for human freedom echoed the voices that we had heard all across the region, from Tunis to Cairo. In the face of these protests, the Gadhafi regime responded with brutal crackdowns - civilians were murdered in the streets, a campaign of violence was launched against the Libyan people, Gadhafi threatened to hunt peaceful protesters down like rats.

As his forces advanced across the country, there existed the potential for wholesale massacres of innocent civilians. In the face of this aggression, the international community took action. The United States helped shape a U.N. Security Council resolution that mandated the protection of Libyan civilians. An unprecedented coalition was formed that included the United States, our NATO partners and Arab nations. And in March, the international community launched a military operation to save lives and stop Gadhafi's forces in their tracks.

In the early days of this intervention, the United States provided the bulk of the firepower, and then our friends and allies stepped forward. The Transitional National Council established itself as a credible representative of the Libyan people. And the United States, together with our European allies and friends across the region, recognized the TNC as the legitimate governing authority in Libya. Gadhafi was cut off from arms and cash and his forces were steadily degraded. From Benghazi to Misrata to the Western Mountains, the Libyan opposition courageously confronted the regime, and the tide turned in their favor.

Over the last several days, the situation in Libya has reached a tipping point, as the opposition increased its coordination from east to west, took town after town, and the people of Tripoli rose up to claim their freedom. For over four decades, the Libyan people had lived under the rule of a tyrant who denied them their most basic human rights. Now, the celebrations that we've seen in the streets of Libya shows that the pursuit of human dignity is far stronger than any dictator.

I want to emphasize that this is not over yet. As the regime collapses, there's still fierce fighting in some areas, and we have reports of regime elements threatening to continue fighting. Although it's clear that Gadhafi's rule is over, he still has the opportunity to reduce further bloodshed by explicitly relinquishing power to the people of Libya and calling for those forces that continue to fight to lay down their arms for the sake of Libya. As we move forward from this pivotal phase, the opposition should continue to take important steps to bring about a transition that is peaceful, inclusive and just.

As the leadership of the TNC has made clear, the rights of all Libyans must be respected. True justice will not come from reprisals and violence. It will come from reconciliation and a Libya that allows its citizens to determine their own destiny. In that effort, the United States will be a friend and a partner. We will join with allies and partners to continue the work of safeguarding the people of Libya. As remaining regime elements menace parts of the country, I've directed my team to be in close contact with NATO, as well as the United Nations, to determine other steps that we can take. To deal with the humanitarian impact, we're working to ensure that critical supplies reach those in need, particularly those who've been wounded.

Secretary Clinton spoke today with her counterparts from leading nations of the coalition on all these matters. And I've directed Ambassador Susan Rice to request that the U.N. secretary-general use next month's General Assembly to support this important transition.

And for many months, the TNC has been working with the international community to prepare for a post-Gadhafi Libya. As those efforts proceed, our diplomats will work with the TNC as they ensure that the institutions of the Libyan state are protected, and we will support them with the assets of the Gadhafi regime that were frozen earlier this year. Above all, we will call for an inclusive transition that leads to a democratic Libya.

As we move forward, we should also recognize the extraordinary work that has already been done. To the American people, these events have particular resonance. Gadhafi's regime has murdered scores of American citizens in acts of terror in the past. Today, we remember the lives of those who were taken in those acts of terror and stand in solidarity with their families.

We also pay tribute to Admiral Sam Locklear and all of the men and women in uniform who have saved so many lives over the last several months, including our brave pilots. They've executed their mission with skill and extraordinary bravery, and all of this was done without putting a single U.S. troop on the ground.

To our friends and allies, the Libyan intervention demonstrates what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one. Although the efforts in Libya are not yet over, NATO has once more proven that it is the most capable alliance in the world, and that its strength comes from both its firepower and the power of our democratic ideals.

And the Arab members of our coalition have stepped up and shown what can be achieved when we act together as equal partners. Their actions sent a powerful message about the unity of our effort and our support for the future of Libya.

Finally, the Libyan people. Your courage and character have been unbreakable in the face of a tyrant. An ocean divides us, but we are joined in the basic human longing for freedom, for justice and for dignity. Your revolution is your own, and your sacrifices have been extraordinary. Now, the Libya that you deserve is within your reach.

Going forward, we will stay in close coordination with the TNC to support that outcome. And though there will be huge challenges ahead, the extraordinary events in Libya remind us that fear can give way to hope, and that the power of people striving for freedom can bring about a brighter day. Thank you very much.

ROBERTS: President Obama in a statement released earlier this hour. We'll continue to monitor the situation in Libya. Stay with NPR News and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED for the latest.

And now Libya is also on the Opinion Page in an op-ed featured today on the Atlantic Monthly's website. Steve Clemons argues that a plan of action is crucial in order to keep the hopes and aspirations of Libyans moving forward. And that plan, he says, must leave Libyans in control of their own future.

We've posted a link to that piece at our website. What do you think should be the most effective way for the United States to help Libya now? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Or send us email. The address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Steve Clemons is the Washington editor-at-large for The Atlantic magazine. He's also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He joins us now here in Studio 3A. Steve, nice to have you with us.

STEVE CLEMONS: Great to be with you.

ROBERTS: Anything surprising in that statement from the president? And that could - actually, a lot of the themes in your own piece about Libya for Libyans.

CLEMONS: Right. I was very pleased to hear the anchor, the kicker of that talk in which - I think, he anchored the - said the most important thing, which is that this needs to be a Libyan story. They need to direct their future. Prime Minister David Cameron made the same key point today. And I thought that President Obama's statement was very strong. It went through and did a number of things.

And I - you know, I'll expected to sort of see, after a period of time, whether Barack Obama's gamble about intervening with other allies, but intervening in an unusual way. We weren't the lead in all of this. We allowed that leadership to be diversified among a cast of players, and we basically created a tilting point opportunity for the opposition, which it might have lost. And that's a very different kind of engagement than we've seen in years past for the United States.

It may be what we were trying to do at the G-20 economically, bringing many more stakeholders into solving global problems. And we may be seeing that same sort of thing evolve on the global security side of the equation.

ROBERTS: You make the point in your piece that the toppling of a hated leader is not the endgame. It's the beginning, right?

CLEMONS: Absolutely.

ROBERTS: And you draw parallels to Saddam Hussein, certainly. And if this is the beginning of what is next for Libya, and although the president did say several times, you know, your revolution is your own, the future is in the hands of the people, he also said: We will stay in close coordination with the transitional council and, you know, help you achieve what it is you're going to achieve. So where is that line, there?

CLEMONS: Well, as they bake this pie of the next governance, the next government in Libya that tries to include many different factors and tribes and different players, there are heroes in this revolution that we don't know yet. I mean, I think the decisive change was what happened in the western side of Tripoli, with the Berber tribes coming out of the mountains and shutting down a wing of Gadhafi's flank that he didn't have to worry about before. And they haven't been part of the Benghazi experiment. So there's going to be some change and modification in that.

And I think one of the challenges for the euphoric West - the French, the British, the Americans that have been so involved - is to be helpful, to be there, but to be also on the sidelines. That if we become too big in the equation, if we send lots of NGOs, we may very well create a backlash, because one of the - as in much of the Arab world, but I think it's deeper in Libya, there is an undercurrent of deep Islamism.

Moammar Gadhafi harassed, detained, killed many jihadists that were going off to fight us in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was oddly an ally of ours, in a strange way, in that. And his son, Saif al-Islam, was in a process of having a lot of these Islamists released at that time. But if we take - one thing that really unifies them is their objection to strong Western presence inside their country. And so that line is going to be there, one of being a help, being a counselor, being a provision of best practices that we can do, but not being so imbedded in what comes next that we create a counterforce against our presence.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. On the other hand, there's quite a lot at stake. It's hard to sit on the sidelines when there's U.S. priorities and strategy at stake in that region.

CLEMONS: Well, I think that that - I think that goes without saying. But that's easy for me, because as a strategist, I look at Egypt and say Egypt has the 900-pound gorilla that really, really will set the trend. Eighty-five million people is the experiment that really has to go right.

I love Libya to go right. I would love Tunisia to go right. But to a certain degree - and, again, talking about the tradeoffs in our attention - Libya, while it's gone well so far, nonetheless, has taken a lot of bandwidth of the White House in terms of attention, diplomatic chips what we've used, and we may need to use those elsewhere. Now we've gone - it's been useful and good for President Obama, I think, politically, to see what's unfolded in Libya. But it's not - still not a vital national security interest the way Egypt is. And so we need to keep these different objects and challenges on - in front of us, all at the same time.

ROBERTS: But if there are limited resources from the Obama White House in terms of attention on - expertise to pay attention to Libya, there's still an awful lot of unanswered questions there. I mean, as you mentioned, that, you know, the Berbers and the Benghazi forces are not necessarily united in some way. I mean, what happens to actually govern Libya next is still a very open and potentially dangerous question.

CLEMONS: I think it's a huge question. I mean, there are so many easy scenarios that one can imagine, and - they're are very positive ones, too - but easy scenarios that could take you into civil war, civil strife, real competition among players in the region.

I've got some good friends, when we were sitting in some of these White House meetings, on occasion, they would bring think tankers in and talk about Libya, talk about Egypt and Tunisia. I have some very good friends from Human Rights Watch who have more confidence than I do in the members of the transition council and their humanitarian credentials. And I would tell them, I said, I certainly hope you've got a few thugs on their side, because that is a brutal place. And there's a place - you know, we saw this as well in the recent murder of the supreme commander, of General Yunis in Libya, where some of his own people took him on. So it's a - it's going to be a rough-and-tumble struggle, to a certain degree.

But on the other hand, we see some real competent people, former minister of justice is chairman of the - Chairman Joe Lewis, chairman of the transition council. And I am impressed with what they've done over the last month, trying to begin thinking about what a governance strategy and structure would look like. But doing it on paper and doing it in real life are very different things. And, you know, you don't want to be too much of a cynic in this. You want to be hopeful that they'll get it right.

But I think it would - it is not unreasonable to begin to think about what are the other currents that could pull this apart, and what are the missteps that we, as outsides in this process that want to be helpful, could take that undermine our friends that we would like to see run the regime. And that is we need to be very careful that this is going to be an experiment in Libyan nationalism, a new, inclusive Libyan nationalism. It has to be their story. And that's exactly where President Obama ended his comments today.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Paula in Tucson. Paula, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PAULA: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. As you were talking, it occurred to me that this an absolutely wonderful opportunity for our country to experiment with a new way of having influence in other countries where appropriate. We're not involved in a war in Libya. We're not in some kind of awful quagmire like we are in Afghanistan and Iraq. And this is a great time for us, as the gentleman said, to start looking at how we respectfully support the aspirations of a nation that doesn't look like us, and it may not work some of the things that we think other people should want based on our own country.

And, you know, as badly as we would love to liberate certain groups of people in, say, a Muslim society - for instance, women - I think a lot of times we Americans forget that no country invaded us when women didn't have the vote in our country and when there were laws on the books that women were actually chattel(ph)). But when we (unintelligible)...

ROBERTS: Paula, let's give Steve Clemons a chance to respond. Thanks for your call.

CLEMONS: Well, I think I agree with the caller in the sense that what President Obama and our allies were able to do was to engage this challenge in a way where we didn't guarantee the outcome. We created a tilting-point opportunity for the opposition. In fact, when things were tilting against them, we tilted it back, but there was really no guarantee. This could have gone on for a very, very long time. In fact, there were scenarios that people like myself considered that the longer that Gadhafi survived in his area, it would be a lot like what China did in Tiananmen. We eventually went back and made nice with China after Tiananmen. And, eventually, other countries might go do the same thing with Libya.

And so I do think that intervening the way we had was quite clever and hopefully a model that we might learn something from in future cases.

ROBERTS: Steve Clemons, the Washington editor-at-large for The Atlantic magazine. We have a link to his piece on our website: npr.org. Thanks so much for joining us.

CLEMONS: My pleasure.

ROBERTS: Tomorrow, we'll look at next steps for Libya, as rebels face ongoing attacks from pro-Gadhafi forces. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

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