With Washington divided over whether or not to intervene in Libya, I talked to a senior official from the George W. Bush Administration, Elliott Abrams, about what Obama ought to do. Abrams was former deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs for The White House. He also served as senior director for democracy and human rights and senior director for the Near East in the National Security Council.
In our interview, Abrams calls for Obama to match words with deeds and impose a no-fly zone over Libya while working with Arab partners to arm and aid the opposition. Abrams also says Bush made a "fabulous contribution" to the Middle East by calling for democracy in the Arab world.
Check out our interview below:
Bakshi: What do you think the Libyan opposition should be doing right now? What should its strategic goals be?
Abrams: The United States has said Gadhafi must step down. The Secretary of State said it and the President said it. It seems to me a disaster for the United States if those words turn out to have no meaning.
The President of the United States cannot say something like that and then put no energy behind the statement. So, I hope first of all that the United States will act in this circumstance. A number of members of the senate have suggested ways in which we could act.
I think the Libyan opposition, to the extent possible, should try to get some faces to present to the world – a spokesman or two. This helps any such cause if people can begin not just to think of ‘the Libyan opposition,’ but of a particular image or two.
It’s not because they have a bad image and they need to improve their image; it’s that there is a lot of propaganda coming from the Gadhafi regime, and the opposition would be better off if it had one or two spokesmen who deal with the media, who appear on CNN, Fox and BBC talking about where there have been gains and where there have been losses in this fight.
It would also help them, obviously, to have some concrete Arab support. I would hope and assume that they are in contact with various Arab governments because Gadhafi – unlike President Mubarak or the King of Bahrain – has always been on the outs with most Arab leaders and you would think that they could get some significant diplomatic support and then material support.
The diplomatic support is already visible obviously in the Arab League and at the UN. But what I haven’t seen them be able to do is to turn that diplomatic support from words into action.
For example, there is a debate about whether the United States should be giving material support to the opposition: cash or arms. We’re having that debate, but is that debate taking place as well in places like Cairo and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi? It ought to be. And I would hope that the opposition is able to get material support from those countries.
Bakshi: Do you think George Bush would have handled the situation in Libya significantly differently than Obama is now?
Abrams: I think Bush would have been more careful to match words and deeds and I don’t think he would have put himself in a situation where he said Gadhafi must go and then does nothing when Gadhafi refuses to go.
Now the [Obama] administration may of course act in the end but from the reaction to Iran in June 2009 to Tunisia to Egypt, they’ve been slow and I think they’ve been slow here as well.
Bakshi: Do you think providing arms to the Libyan opposition would have the desired benefit? Is training and other forms of support necessary or are arms alone sufficient?
Abrams: If you break it down the first question is: what kinds of arms would actually be useful? Nobody needs to be trained on a rifle, and if there is a shortage of rifles and ammunitions that’s something that we or many other countries could supply.
But if, for example, its anti-aircraft weapons, then presumably you do need training. Then the question becomes what portion of the Libyan Army has already defected? Clearly some people in the east are able to use anti-aircraft weapons so maybe the training really is not necessary – maybe what’s necessary is simply the weaponry. You then get to the question of a no-fly-zone as well because we continue to see Gadhafi use air power.
Bakshi: Is there a historical example you look to in analyzing the situation in Libya and thinking about how the United States ought to respond?
Abrams: I don’t think there’s a precise analogy. There is something of an analogy to the Balkan cases like Kosovo where the United States intervened although not alone, though we did lead a European and U.S. intervention. There were cases where we didn’t intervene. Sudan is an example of this. Go back to Sudan in the early years in Darfur where there was mass killing and where the mass killing was partly occasioned by the use of helicopter gunships and airpower by the government of Sudan. The United States did not intervene, I think, mostly because of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were then very recent. It wouldn’t have taken much airpower on the part of the United States and Europe – that is, NATO – to have destroyed the ability of the Sudanese air force to kill people. We didn’t do it and I think it was a mistake not to do it, and I would say the same thing here. I support the views of Senator Lieberman and Senator McCain and I don’t understand why a no-fly zone is quite so difficult. I was not persuaded by Secretary Gates’ dismissal of it.
Bakshi: What do you see in store for Libya? Can you make predictions or is it far too soon?
Abrams: Libya has one enormous advantage if you compare it to Egypt. Egypt is a very poor country with a population of 80 million. Egypt therefore is going to have significant economic problems no matter what policies are adopted. No one can wave a magic wand and solve the problem of poverty and underemployment and unemployment in Egypt. Libya has 6.5 million people. It’s got about 100 billion dollars roughly in current assets and will have a steady flow of oil revenue. So the chances to create employment through foreign investment and development of the infrastructure are terrific. It’s a much easier case.
Bakshi: Do you think that the policies and emphasis of the Bush Administration helped lay the groundwork for these revolutions? Would you make a claim of that nature or was this an event divorced from the policies of the U.S.?
I don’t want to go too far in making a claim. I do not think there is a cause and effect relationship at all. But I do think there is a relationship because what the United States did in those years was to put the issue of democracy squarely on the table. We were not alone in doing so. You may remember the Arab Human Development Report – the first one was in 2002 – that talked about a “democracy deficit” but the United States certainly put it on the table in the President’s [Bush's] speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, in his second inaugural, in Rice’s AUC [American University in Cairo] speech in 2005 and I really think that that helped change the debate in the Arab world.
In 1995 or ‘85 there was not a broad debate about democracy and about whether the forms of government that you saw there were wrong, were illegitimate, had to change, and all of sudden this was being debated for a variety of reasons: the fall of the Soviet Union, obviously, the advancement of democracy elsewhere created this kind of “Arab exceptionalism” [the notion that the region could not embrace democracy].
Bush made a tremendous contribution in saying, “‘Arab exceptionalism’ is bunk; ‘Arab exceptionalism’ is a lie told by dictators; and democracy has to come to the Arab World too.”
I think that was a fabulous contribution.
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