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March 14, 2011 1:29 pm

Libya Needs Action Now

avatar by John Bolton

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Rebels hold up a Kingdom of Libya flag as they stand on top of a tank on the outskirts of Ajdabiyah, on the road leading to Brega. Photo: BRQ

Momentum in Libya’s civil war has recently shifted to Moammar Gadhafi, although the final outcome remains uncertain. Nonetheless, President Obama’s indecisiveness has unquestionably limited American options, making almost any potential intervention riskier and less likely to succeed. His preferred course, yet again, has consisted of rhetoric combined with studied inaction. This may meet the White House objective of “No Drama Obama,” but it does not constitute a foreign policy.

The Libyan strife directly affects profoundly important U.S. national interests. Our unwillingness or increasing inability to protect these interests will not only damage us today in Libya, but tomorrow elsewhere in the world. Three interests stand out.

First, Gadhafi has never faced his richly deserved retribution for numerous acts of terrorism against innocent Americans, including blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 and bombing the La Belle discotheque in Berlin in 1986. Admittedly, Gadhafi bought himself diplomatic legitimacy (normalized diplomatic relations with Washington and other capitals) and increased foreign investment by agreeing in 2003-04 to eliminate Libya’s nuclear and chemical weapons programs, and paying compensation to some victims of his terrorism. Clearly, dismantling these weapons of mass destruction was correct policy: Imagine what the stakes and risks would be now if Gadhafi had nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, no one believed that the United States was granting a perpetual “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

Any obligations still flowing from the WMD agreement ended when Gadhafi used its benefits to brutally suppress opposition to his authoritarian regime. And U.S. victims of Gadhafi’s terrorism still deserve to be avenged. Moreover, with the continuing threat of international terrorism undiminished, we should remind other would-be murderers that “Civis Americanus sum” remains our watchword. Deterrence may not be effective against suicide bombers, but their state sponsors will get the message.

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Second, either a Gadhafi victory or a protracted, low-grade civil war, both of which are entirely possible outcomes, could again make Libya a base for terrorism. Gadhafi’s own history on this score leaves little doubt he would revert to the terrorist tactics he knows so well.

Alternatively, a state of anarchy within Libya, through the disintegration of effective national authority, would create ideal conditions for international terrorists to establish bases, much as al Qaeda and others have in Somalia. Such anarchy would directly threaten Europe, just across the Mediterranean Sea, and raise grave risks of further instability throughout the Middle East. Far better for Washington and its NATO allies to act now to avert this potential chaos, rather than watch it unfold later. Of course, there is no guarantee that a successor regime to Gadhafi would not also support terrorism, but given a choice between Gadhafi and uncertainty, uncertainty is more likely to be the safer choice.

Third, in any scenario in which Gadhafi prevails, there is every prospect that he will restart and vigorously pursue his WMD programs. Even before opposition to his regime boiled over, Gadhafi was complaining that he had not gotten all he expected from allowing the United States to ship his nascent nuclear weapons program to Oak Ridge, Tenn.

After listening to Obama call for his ouster and then fail to do much of anything to bring it about, Gadhafi will likely conclude that Washington only pays attention when he brandishes the nuclear threat. Indeed, even Gadhafi’s bizarre logic will impel him to see nuclear weapons as the trump card to protect his regime in the future and to exert a disproportionate influence in his region, exactly as North Korea and Iran are so successfully doing right now.

The threat of Iran achieving deliverable nuclear weapons already poses an enormous security risk in the Middle East. Were Gadhafi, once back in control of Libyan oil production and distribution, to resume his quest for nuclear weapons, the threat of regional nuclear proliferation would expand exponentially. This would be a disaster for U.S. non-proliferation policy globally, and a huge danger for Israel and our Arab allies.

The steps America can take to protect our key strategic interests are becoming increasingly limited. Options include a no-fly zone (now belatedly endorsed by the Arab League) and possibly a no-drive zone for Gadhafi’s military vehicles, plus recognizing Libya’s opposition as its legitimate government. Whatever we do, however, must be done quickly to have a realistic chance of success. Unfortunately, while the clock ticks and our interests disintegrate, Obama remains essentially passive.

John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option.”

This article originally appeared in the the Daily

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