In Libya, Regime Change Should Be the Goal
President Obama made a compelling case for our intervention in Libya on Monday evening, and U.S. actions there deserve bipartisan support in Congress. As the president rightly noted, failure to intervene militarily would have resulted in a humanitarian and strategic disaster. Because of our actions, the Gadhafi regime has been prevented from brutally crushing its opposition.
The president was also correct in framing what is happening in Libya within the broader context of the democratic awakening that is sweeping across the broader Middle East - the most consequential geopolitical realignment since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
If Gadhafi is allowed to hang onto power through the use of indiscriminate violence, it will send a message to dictators throughout the region and beyond that the way to respond, when people rise up peacefully and demand their rights, is through repression and slaughter - and that the rest of the world, including the U.S., won't stand in the way.
What is needed now is not a backward-looking debate about what the administration could or should have done differently, but a forward-looking strategy that identifies America's national interests in Libya and works to achieve them.
As President Obama has rightly and repeatedly insisted, a successful outcome in Libya requires the departure of Gadhafi as quickly as possible. It is not in our interest for Libya to become the scene of a protracted stalemate that will destabilize and inflame the region.
While both Arab leaders and public opinion are hostile towards Gadhafi personally - a fact that helps explain the Arab League's unprecedented decision to support intervention in Libya - we are concerned that regional support will waver if Western forces are perceived as presiding over a military deadlock. We cannot allow Gadhafi to consolidate his grip over part of the country and settle in for the long haul.
There are several steps urgently needed to prevent this outcome. First, while we understand the diplomatic reasons behind the Obama administration's reluctance to make Gadhafi's removal an explicit goal of the coalition military mission, the reality on the ground is that our coalition's air strikes against his forces must work toward this objective.
In the days ahead, it is imperative that we maintain and if necessary expand our air strikes against Gadhafi's ground forces, which pose a threat to civilians wherever they are. In doing so, we can pave the way for the Libyan opposition to reverse Gadhafi's offensive and to resume their quest to end his rule.
The battlefield reversals suffered by the opposition this week, when weather conditions hampered coalition air strikes, underscore the need for a more robust and coherent package of aid to the rebel ground forces.
The U.S. should also expand engagement with the Libyan opposition, led by the interim Transitional National Council currently based in Benghazi. We have been encouraged by the Obama administration's growing rhetorical support for the opposition, but we hope to see more tangible manifestations of it in the days ahead.
In particular, we and our allies should be providing the council with the communications equipment, logistical support, training, tactical intelligence and weapons necessary to consolidate rule over the territory they have liberated and to continue tilting the balance of power against Gadhafi. We do not need to put U.S. forces on the ground precisely because the Libyans themselves are fighting for their freedom. But they need our help, and quickly, to succeed.
Another immediate priority should be getting humanitarian assistance into eastern Libya and restoring telecommunications access there, where Gadhafi has cut off land lines, mobile networks and the Internet. While top opposition leaders have satellite phones, we have both humanitarian and strategic interests in restoring the ability of people in liberated parts of Libya to communicate with each other and the rest of the world. We should also take steps to get Gadhafi's satellite, television, and radio broadcasts off the air, while helping the opposition air its broadcasting.
Finally, we should follow France and Qatar in recognizing the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya, and we should encourage other allies and partners to do the same.
Some critics still argue that we should be cautious about helping the Libyan opposition, warning that we do not know enough about them or that their victory could pave the way for an al Qaeda takeover. Both arguments are hollow. By all accounts, the Transitional National Council is led by moderates who have declared their vision for (as their website puts it) Libya becoming "a constitutional democratic civil state based on the rule of law, respect for human rights and the guarantee of equal rights and opportunities for all its citizens."
If there is any hope for a decent government to emerge from the ashes of the Gadhafi dictatorship, this is it. Throwing our weight behind the transitional government is our best chance to prevent Libya's unraveling into postwar anarchy - precisely the circumstance under which Islamist extremists are most likely to gain a foothold.
We cannot guarantee the success of the Libyan revolution, but we have prevented what was, barely a week ago, its imminent destruction. That is why the president was right to intervene. He now deserves our support as we and our coalition partners do all that is necessary to help the Libyan people secure a future of freedom.