As Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi savages his people in a bid to stay in power and the Obama administration dithers about a response, the question arises: Haven’t we seen this movie before?
We have — several times, and the plots have not been pretty.
In 1956, Hungarian insurgents rebelled against the regime and domination by the Soviet Union. U.S.-financed Radio Free Europe did not inspire the revolt, but after it began some broadcasts uncritically reported the outpouring of solidarity with the insurgents around the world and aired commentaries that gave listeners the impression that the West would provide support for the rebellion. When the crackdown came, America was nowhere to be seen.
In 1991, after U.S.-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and all but destroyed his army, President George H.W. Bush urged Iraqis to oust Saddam from power, then stood idle as his Republican Guards killed tens of thousands of Shiite and Kurdish rebels.
In the early 1990s, too, the Bush and Clinton administrations did effectively nothing as Serbs massacred and raped Bosnians and ethnic Albanians in the Balkans — until finally President Bill Clinton bypassed the United Nations to order NATO airstrikes to halt the fighting.
As well, the United States armed Islamists in Afghanistan when they were fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s, then abandoned the country until after al-Qaida launched the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Here we go again. After long days of silence as Libyans rose up against Gadhafi, President Barack Obama declared last week that the dictator “needs to step down from power and leave.”
But, as to action that would force that result, the administration seems decidedly indecisive, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton referring to the possibility of a “no fly zone” to prevent Libyan planes from bombarding rebels, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates all but flatly ruling it out.
The administration is providing humanitarian aid and is consulting with allies but apparently will not take decisive action without United Nations approval.
Obama also may be conflicted because popular rebellions are under way in countries friendly to the United States — notably Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt — and he may fear that intervention in Libya would imply similar action in those countries.
Such fears should not determine U.S. policy. The U.S. surely can distinguish between a madman using terror and an authoritarian using tear gas and truncheons.
For in places where restive populations are demanding reform or new governments, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) last week floated a proposal made to him by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a western Marshall Plan using non-governmental funds to provide schools, clinics and clean water.
Instead of $120 billion in U.S. government funds — what America provided to Europeans in today’s dollars after World War II — Alexander said that private foundations and donors should raise tens of billions to go mainly to non-government institutions.
The similarity to the original Marshall Plan, according to Alexander, is that the recipient countries would design their own programs rather than having the U.S. impose its ideas. The projects would have to be attractive enough to win private support.
For various reasons — notably past support for dictators — the United States is deeply unpopular in most of the Arab world. Promoting reform and organizing effective development programs can only help build a more favorable image.
And so would effective action to rid Libya of Gadhafi. A “no fly zone” might not be the most effective method in as much as fighter planes are not the dictator’s dominant method of beating back rebels.
He is using helicopters, tanks, loyalist troops and mercenaries imported from sub-Saharan Africa. To counter them militarily, the United States would have to engage in ground combat, which is not an option for a military already fighting two wars.
Better ideas have been pressed on Obama by Republicans such as Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Mitch McConnell (Ky.), including weapons, ammunition, intelligence and training for anti-Gadhafi rebels.
With the right kind of arms — such as shoulder-fired missiles and anti-tank weapons — the rebels might be able to defeat Gadhafi’s forces.
And former Bush administration national security adviser Stephen Hadley has recommended other steps such as offers to recognize the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya, conversion of Gadhafi’s $15 billion in frozen assets as a trust fund for the Libyan people and threats of war crimes trials for those who support Gadhafi.
Of course there is no guarantee that the regime taking over from Gadhafi would be friendly to the United States, but it’s clear that if Gadhafi stays in power, he will be hostile, possibly returning to terrorism.
Obama evidently does not want the United States to be seen as responsible, after Iraq, for toppling another Arab government and having to manage its successor.
But the fact is that he has already taken the fateful step of prescribing an outcome — Gadhafi’s departure.
If he does not take steps to make that happen, the United States will come out looking like a paper tiger, not a world leader.
And, if a bloodbath occurs — and, worse, if Gadhafi survives in power after a bloodbath — it will be 1956 and 1991 all over again.
Clarification: March 28, 2011
The column asserted that Radio Free Europe “cheered on” anti-Communist rebels in Hungary in 1956 and “led them to think America would come to their aid.” Radio Free Europe did not officially endorse the rebellion but acknowledges it aired commentaries creating that impression.