U.S. Intervention in Libya: Shifting the Narrative in U.S.-Arab relations

On February 26, President Barack Obama spoke up for the first time against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan leader must "leave now", he said since his rule no longer has legitimacy. On March 16, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution authorizing military action to impose a no-fly zone in Libya. With this resolution, the U.S. became involved in Libya.

President Obama inherited the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from his predecessor. Thus, Libya is the Obama administration's first overseas military offensive against a sovereign nation. While pundits on the left argue that we should not get involved in Libya and those on right bemoan the foot-dragging that preceded our belated intervention, I would argue that the U..S intervention in Libya has the potential for being a significant game changer in the narrative of US-Arab relations - assuming we do not repeat the mistakes we made in Iraq.

So far, we have managed to avoid the pitfalls that plagued the Iraq pre-invasion phase. The Obama administration did not support the military intervention in Libya until three conditions were met: Arabs requested the intervention, Europeans took the lead role in calling for the intervention, and the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the action.

Most important is the rationale offered by the President for going against Muammar Gaddafi. It is not about Israel security, oil, the "mushroom cloud" or Al-Qaeda, the main drivers of U.S. policy in the Middle East since 9/11. The rationale offered by the Bush administration for going into Iraq was to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction, which presented an imminent threat to American citizens. When no such weapons were found, the existing narrative in the Arab region-that the Iraq war was about oil -gained further credence.

In this military intervention in Libya , the reason offered was to prevent the massacre of Libyan citizens. This was not about the West' s traditional interest in securing easy access to Middle Eastern oil. One could argue that the West was willing to take on this risk because Libya produces only2% of the world's oil, and that Libyan crude could be easily replaced by other Mediterranean sources. Still, the fact that the United States, which has little interest in Libyan oil, took this action to save civilian lives is not lost on Arabs, including the U.S. detractors among them. By intervening, the Obama administration has shown that it is willing to walk the walk when it comes to democracy, and the rights of people everywhere to seek better lives for themselves and their children, as well as the right to fair treatment at the hands of those who govern them. Failing to intervene and standing by while Gaddafi ordered mass killings in Benghazi as he threatened to do, would have dealt a deadly blow to the democratic awakening we are seeing unfold in the Arab region. Most importantly, it would have reinforced the argument made by many Arabs that when the U.S. is faced with a choice between the security of the Arab regimes and the rights of the Arab peoples, security trumps rights.

Instead, this military action rekindles hope that the words Arabs heard from President Obama at Cairo University on June 4, 2009 were not hollow and that his call for "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world" was genuine. From the beginning, Arabs were very much attracted to Obama's personal story - a story of hard work and ambition that succeeded partly because of a meritocratic system and the rule of law that level the playing field and offer everyone the opportunity to succeed. For many Arabs, it epitomized all that is lacking in their part of the world. They were also appreciative of his frankeness in talking about common interests and differences between the United States and the Arab region.

The history of relations between the West and the Arab world has always been complicated and conflictual. In general, Arab publics have always held a dual view of the West. On the one hand, Europe (in the past) and America (today) are perceived as colonial powers and oppressors. America joined the ranks of colonial powers following the 2003 invasion of Iraq when for the first time in the history of U.S. - Arab relations, American soldiers occupied an Arab country. In addition, the West helped create the state of Israel and continues to support it. On the other hand, Arabs admired the West's modern and pluralistic societies. This dual perspective has existed since the Renaissance period and has evolved over a long period of time.

Until the mid-1940's, Arab perceptions of the United States were quite positive. The commonly held image of America was that of a great people who, unlike Europeans, had not been guilty of colonizing Arab lands. By and large, Americans had come to Arab lands as educators, doctors, engineers, and had established institutions like the American University of Beirut to impart knowledge, expertise, and skills to Arab youth. Arabs have always admired the United States' Bill of Rights and its championing of human and individual rights including religious freedoms. Arab immigrants have found refuge in the United States and have achieved prominence in the fields of business, politics, medicine, arts, and education. Arabs admired the idea and ideal of America, although the Guantanamo Prison and the Abu Ghraib affair have seriously tarnished our image.

Over the years, Arabs' perceptions of the United States have become increasingly negative for a number of reasons, chief among them the intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In the popular consciousness of the Arab world, the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories are perceived as an American project. Another major source of negative perceptions of the United States lies in the Arab people's increasing dissatisfaction with their own governments - for their failure to meet their people's basic needs for health care, good education and jobs and for the absence of transparent political systems that enable people to choose their leaders freely. In Arab eyes, the United States and Europe have become the guarantors of these repressive regimes, shoring them up and protecting them against the will of their own citizens.

This narrative is now undergoing a transformation. Prior to the intervention in Libya, Arab bloggers, journalists, and analysts were beginning to argue that the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have already pushed the limits of the United States' tolerance for democratic change in the Middle East, especially as they watched on their TV screens peaceful protesters getting killed in the streets of Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya. The military intervention in Libya gives a second wind to the popular uprisings that are unfolding elsewhere in the Arab region. Witness the recent uprising in Syria, which is ruled by a regime that is considered as one of the most repressive dictatorships in the region.

The road going forward is fraught with danger and potential upsets. The success of the transformation beginning to occur in U.S.- Arab relations will depend partly on whether the Arab support for the military intervention in Libya will be sustained. That in turn will depend on how the military campaign unfolds. In order to maximize the chances of continued Arab support, the U.S. and its Western allies must:

  • Hold fast to its determination not to put boots on the ground in Libya. While the U.N. Security Council resolution 1973 clearly forbids " a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory," military intervention can be a slippery slope and depending on the developments on the ground, a rationale could be made in the future for introducing foreign troops to support the opposition forces. The U.S. must at all costs refrain from doing so. Libya has had a bitter colonial experience. Raw feelings from the Iraq invasion are still prevalent in the Arab region. Putting Western ground troops on Libyan soil, will inevitably cause the narrative in Libya and the Arab region to shift from one that focuses on the overthrow of a dictator to a narrative of resistance against another colonial intervention in Arab lands.
  • Let the Libyan opposition and the Arabs take the lead in this fight. The intervention should aim at enabling the Libyan opposition groups to carry out the fight. They need arms and supplies, both of which could be provided by Arab countries including neighboring Egypt. The no-fly zone will level the playing field between the pro-Gaddafi and opposition forces. Our goal should be to enable the Libyan opposition groups to succeed in overthrowing the Gaddafi regime with a minimal Western footprint.
  • Minimize collateral damage. On March 2, U.S. Secretary of Defense said at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing "Let's call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses.... It's a big operation in a big country." One must assume that bombings and cruise missile attacks to suppress Libyan air defenses will likely lead to Libyan civilian casualties. Once pictures of civilian deaths start dominating airwaves, anti-Gaddafi sentiment will give in to anti-U.S. anger. We would do well to avoid a repeat of the Afghanistan experience where aerial strikes causing numerous civilian casualties have undermined the objectives of the mission.
  • Insist on Gaddafi's ouster. As President Obama has stated on numerous occasions, the U.S. and its allies must not waiver from the stated end goal: Gaddafi's ouster. If Muammar Gaddafi were to win this fight, the democratic awakening sweeping across the Arab region will wither away. Since the successes scored in Tunisia and Egypt by peaceful popular movements in overthrowing their authoritarian leaders , there are ongoing attempts by other Arab despots to try another response i.e., fighting back with force and repression and counting on "revolution fatigue" in the West to leave them alone. Witness what is happening elsewhere in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. By refusing to strike any deal that would allow the survival of the Gaddafi regime, the international coalition would be sending a strong signal that the days of repression and brute force are over in the Arab region.