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Robert Grenier
Robert Grenier
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.
The burden of leadership
How can the Arab League support a no-fly zone over Libya and then complain after it is put in place?
Last Modified: 26 Mar 2011 18:27
Air attacks by coalition forces have destroyed equipment belonging to Gaddafi's regime, but critics say too many civilians have been killed in the process [AFP]

No good deed, they say, goes unpunished.

Still, the haste with which Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, began to chastise those implementing the no-fly zone over Libya mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 1973 a resolution, mind you, solicited only days before by the Arab League itself was almost breathtaking.

It may be bad form to quote oneself, but this aspiring pundit cannot refrain from noting his prior observation in this space that the League's resolution endorsing a UN-sponsored no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians fairly reeked of ambivalence.

In the same piece, this correspondent noted that it was perhaps too much to expect the US to take a leading role in promoting and then implementing a no-fly zone, if one were eventually adopted by the Security Council, given America's parlous standing in the region, where any perceived misstep would certainly be seized upon by its erstwhile Arab enablers as a sign of malevolent intent.

Nonetheless, and acting perhaps against his better judgement, president Obama took the League's resolution as an indication of regional support and joined the British and French in pressing for a UN-sponsored no-fly zone.

Diplomatic language

The Security Council, fortunately, was alive to the reality that a measure designed ostensibly to protect civilians, but which limited itself to the threat from aircraft, ignoring the far more deadly menace posed by Gaddafi's tanks and artillery, would amount to little more than posturing.

The Council therefore adopted language permitting "all necessary measures" to protect civilian populations "under threat of attack".

It is good that this language was included. Without it, French jets would not have had authorisation to attack the tank columns closing in on Benghazi and Ajdabiyah. Without it, significant regime elements might by now have penetrated in force into densely-populated areas of Benghazi, beyond the effective reach of coalition aircraft, and prepared to visit Gaddafi's revenge on the turbulent people of Libya's second-largest city in their own way, and in their own good time.

Perhaps it was just this action which gave Amr Moussa second thoughts.

Whatever the proximate reason, sure enough, the secretary general was voicing doubts barely hours after the resolution went into effect, expressing concern over the vigour of coalition attacks and the possibility of coalition-induced civilian casualties, throwing continued Arab League support for the effort into considerable doubt.

As Raghida Dergham of Al Hayat newspaper put it to him in a subsequent interview, did he not know that enforcement of a no-fly zone would "require bombings on the ground"?

In that same interview, questioned as to the prospect of continued violence and an open-ended Libyan civil war, Mr. Moussa suggested the likelihood of quick success for the UN's humanitarian mission, with the prospect of a ceasefire and international observers in place.

This is pious nonsense, and Moussa knows it. Anyone having the barest acquaintance with the Libyan regime is fully aware that there will be no ceasefire worthy of the name, and that Gaddafi will stop at nothing until his enemies are eradicated.

The rebels know this full well: This will be a fight to the finish, and the price of failure, at least for the rebels, will be death.

A regime schooled for years by the East Germans in the use of domestic terror as a means of political control is not about to reach a "peace of the brave" with those whom it regards as traitors.

Indeed, one shudders at the thought of what must be happening, as these words are written, in areas thus far retaken by the regime.

Power without responsibility

No, the words of the outgoing secretary general and aspiring president of Egypt are those of one long accustomed to operating secure in the knowledge that he will never be expected to act upon his words, and can leave those actions to others; that he will never have to take genuine moral responsibility for unintended consequences he can neither foresee nor control; and that he can content himself with demands for outcomes free of moral ambiguity, without having to produce them himself.

Those days, thankfully, may soon come to an end. The demand for changes in the quality of Arab leadership will come both from the international community and from Arab citizens themselves.

The text of resolution 1973 explicitly exhorts members of the League of Arab States to involve themselves in carrying out the military actions it provides for; thus far, only little Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have pledged to do so.

Obama has wisely insisted that the US step aside, once having made those contributions only it can make, in order to cede leadership to others, including those in the Arab world, whose interests are far more directly at stake in Libya than are those of the US.

And Turkish prime minister Erdogan has very wisely insisted that, while NATO may take on the role of operational coordination of military actions in Libya, the burden of political guidance, in what will inevitably become a highly complicated and politically uncertain situation, be far more widely shared.

Here especially, Arab nations should not be allowed, and should not allow themselves, to avoid responsibility.

Of the three elements of UN-mandated action in Libya – a weapons embargo, a no-fly zone, and protection of civilians – the first two are relatively easy; the third is exceedingly ambiguous and difficult.

As the Libyan rebels continue efforts to free themselves from a vile regime from which they can expect no quarter, the international community is sure to be confronted with a series of difficult choices.

When and where should coalition aircraft intervene to attack the regime's superior armour, artillery and rocket forces, when their mandate is restricted to civilian protection?

The logic of the situation dictates that short of outright regime change, large numbers of Libyan civilians, who can never again be considered reliable by the regime, will remain abjectly vulnerable to the tender mercies of Gaddafi, even if far from the front lines of battle. Who will protect them?

Libyans in control

Virtually no one argues that the international community should remove Gaddafi by direct use of force, no matter how fervently they may desire his fall.

Clearly, Libyans must be the agents of their own liberation, if free they are to be. For this, moreover, they will have to pay a heavy price in blood.

But the action or inaction of international air forces will doubtless play an important role in determining whether the Libyan people's sacrifices are to be rewarded with success or with tragedy. The Arab world must share in the moral responsibility for those choices.

Already, detractors of Obama are attacking him for what they describe as his timidity in trying to cede leadership in this crisis to others. Seizing upon the limitations and internal inconsistencies of the recent UN resolution, they are demanding that the US provide the consistent leadership that is unlikely to come from an international committee.

Obama will be wise to ignore these taunts.

Yes, some Libyans may well die needlessly due to the vagaries and inconsistencies in tactical decision-making which will inevitably occur as those who take up practical implementation of UNSCR 1973 over the longer term struggle with that responsibility.

But the American president must also remember that the struggle within Libya, no matter how gripping and morally compelling to some, including this observer, does not engage core US national security interests.

In this instance, it should be an element of US leadership to demand a greater degree of responsibility and political maturity from others – including those in the leadership class of the Arab world. Eventually, the Arab people will demand nothing less.

It is part of the logic of the democratisation process in the Arab world, however lengthy and uncertain that process may be, that those who have taken their lives and their destinies into their own hands, who have assumed responsibility for their own fate, and taken decisive action on their own behalf, will demand the same of their leaders on the regional and international level.

Amr Moussa, who aspires to leadership of the country in the vanguard of that process, would do well to keep this looming imperative in mind.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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