Arab League, History Complicate U.S. Action in Libya

Libyan rebels look at government troops position as they massed for a second day on several kilometres from the key city of Ajdabiya on March 22, 201

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Steven Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed the developments in Libya and where the Arab League and NATO figure into the coalition forces running the military intervention in Libya.

A mere five days after the NATO and EU countries began bombing Moammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya, signs that the international fellowship is fraying have already come to the surface.

The most dangerous rift may be the one opening between western allies and the Arab League. Crucial to the Obama administration's decision to open military operations against Gadhafi was the League's endorsement of a no-fly zone over Libya. That resolution, which was unanimously approved, was also the green light that nations like France and Britain had been waiting to see.

But according to Steven Cook, West and Middle East may not have been on the same page with regard to what constitutes a no-fly zone. And that's not the only point of confusion—or contention.

People did not understand the extent to which military operations were necessary in order to establish the no-fly zone. There's also not a lot of clarity from western allies about what exactly they're supposed to be doing in Libya. Particularly from the Saudi perspective, there's a tremendous amount of distrust of the United States...[They] were very unhappy with the way in which the Obama administration dealt with the revolution in Egypt, and has been unhappy with the counsel that the Obama administration has given the ruling family in Bahrain over the uprising there and has in fact offered Bahrainis a significant amount of money and military help in putting down that uprising. The Saudis across the board see the U.S. hand in all these things and see that it will have a negative effect on their own security.

Muddled goals and Arab disunity seem to have put the brakes on political and military support  from other Middle East nations. Cook says that, in another instance of crossed wires and bad reads, the West was banking on the Arab League's no-fly approval as an assurance that they would join in military operations in Libya; an agreement to have some "skin in the game," so to speak.

In a perfect world that would be terrific, and I think that's essentially what the White House imagined when they got the Arab League endorsement of a no-fly zone, that they'd at least get political cover for undertaking military operations and at least one Arab pilot flying along with Americans and Brits and the French and others. That has not materialized. I think the politics of the region has intruded rudely on this very nice plan to establish a no-fly zone and give rebellion an actual fighting chance against Gadhafi.

"Elements within the Arab world are deeply opposed," Cook said, "to participation with the West as it undertakes military operations against another Arab and Muslim country." Libya, after Iraq and Afghanistan, is the third Middle East country to face a war with the U.S. in the past decade.

Cook said that decision opens the U.S. up to some pretty daunting questions about what our grounds for military intervention are—especially as uprisings bubble up and dictators crack down across the region.

It's hard to have consistency in foreign policy, and this situation really brings that into sharp relief. We're undertaking military action against Gadhafi, but Bahrainis are also using military force against their own people, the Yemenis have done the same, of course the scale is quite different, but that raises the question: why Libya and not Bahrain, or Yemen, or other places?

Wherever the United States decides to take action, Cook said, the Obama administration would face a challenge escalating its degree of involvement to include troops on the ground. In addition to being politically unpalatable domestically, it would require unlikely consensus from European allies and Arab countries, or else unilateral action that would play as a re-run of Iraq—also a bad bet.

And yet, without a clearly defined (or at least clearly stated) goal for military operations in Libya, the U.S. has taken an open-ended role in the conflict. But Cook told Brian Lehrer that if our aim is indeed to ouster Moammar Gadhafi, that's a complicated sell; it would sound a lot like advocating for "regime change," a phrase that Middle East nations have come to loathe.

Implicitly, the mission is, though it obviously has not been articulated, is to level the field so the rebellion may have a fighting chance against Gadhafi. If we've come to the conclusion, which it seems we have, that Gadhafi is a danger to his own people, then the logical outcome of our military operations and support to the rebellion is an end to the Gadhafi regime—we're just not willing or able to get everyone around the table to say, 'That's what we're doing.'