Shadow Government

What if Qaddafi wins? Then what?

The calls for President Obama to show more effective leadership and action on Libya are growing louder by the day and coming from ever more surprising corners. Former State Policy Planning Director Anne-Marie Slaughter issued a carefully worded but striking rebuke of Administration policy on the pages of the New York Times. Perhaps that will stir greater Administration activity in pursuit of a no-fly zone -- Slaughter's policy prescription -- but I doubt it. And I am beginning to think that it may be too late for an incremental measure like that anyway.

Qaddafi's forces have the advantage and appear to be pressing that advantage with a determination that stands in sharp contrast to the uncertain equivocation shown by the international community. Perhaps the international community will act at the eleventh hour or perhaps the rebels will recover despite the absence of effective international intervention, but both look increasingly unlikely.

There will be time in coming months to do the comprehensive analysis that determines what were missed opportunities and what were never opportunities in the first place. My guess is that Eliot Cohen's preliminary assessment will stand up pretty well: we will come to regret the loose talk by Secretary Gates and other critics of the no-fly-zone that undercut international efforts to shape events in Libya, bolstered Qaddafi, and demoralized the rebels all at precisely the most inopportune time. On the other hand, it may be that expressions of public doubt by administration principals were of secondary importance, overshadowed by the unmistakable reluctance of President Obama himself. Or perhaps hindsight will support the notion that the Libyan rebellion was doomed from the start and U.S. inaction of less-than-secondary importance. 

Whatever the ultimate lessons learned, the Obama Team should delay the post-mortem in favor of a much more urgent priority: developing a strategic plan for dealing with post-rebellion Libya led by a weakened, desperate, embittered, but also emboldened Qaddafi regime. The administration is reportedly hard at work on a big speech for the President to give in the coming days or weeks. Before working on that speech, I hope they have first forged a robust strategy.

The best place to start is to reject the wishful thinking of those who would pretend that the U.S. does not have serious national security interests at stake in the outcome in Libya. On the contrary, there is much at stake and the administration needs a strategy to address a range of challenges that will confront the United States and our partners. Here is my laundry list of concerns to start the thinking, but I hope the strategic planners in the Obama administration are developing their own, more comprehensive, list:

The humanitarian disaster of a collapsed Libyan economy (which depended on the hundreds of thousands of expatriates who are now refugees) combined with refugees combined with an attractive refugee magnet to the north (the EU). This would be daunting enough if Qaddafi were gone and there was a semi-permissive environment in which to act. Under the more likely planning scenario of a Qaddafi exploiting the suffering to regain his regional leverage, this has the potential to rival the challenges posed by the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. (For an optimistic discussion of options, see Bob Pape's analysis here.)

A renewed push for WMD by Qaddafi, who will likely view all previous deals as not only null and void but also blunders. He is likely to ask himself: "Would my situation have reached so dire a point if I had kept my WMD leverage and thus could have blackmailed the international community into abandoning the rebels even faster than they did?" His answer is likely to intensify not only his own pursuit of WMD but perhaps also that of other rogue regimes.

The radicalization of whatever rump rebellion remains. The geographical heart of the rebellion -- the eastern region of Libya -- was also the source of many of the suicide bombers Al Qaeda in Iraq deployed against the coalition during the height of the Iraq war. It is an unfortunate fact that the rebels most likely to survive Qaddafi's murderous counterattack are the ones most inimical to our interests. When the dust settles, we will likely confront in Libya two different devils, both of which we know all too well.

The region-wide effects of resurgent authoritarianism on fledgling democratic movements. Ever since the Vietnam War, some have tried to pooh-pooh the domino theory and to pretend that there are no contagion effects in international relations. That myth is harder to cling to now given the dramatic spread of civil-unrest from Tunisia to Oman. And as Jackson Diehl argues, more malign contagion effects are not only possible but likely if Qaddafi succeeds in destroying his domestic opponents. If the international community stands idly by while Qaddafi reasserts control in Libya, it will be that much harder to shore up fledgling democratic movements in the region -- but also that much more urgent a priority. 

The internal contradictions among the various policies already enunciated. Up until now, the Obama administration has not really issued a clear policy. Instead, the administration has expressed a vague hope that Qaddafi would step down of his own accord or be forced out without the United States having to do much. In support of this hope, the Obama administration has articulated a number of policies that work at cross purposes. For instance, the threat of war crime charges undercuts the likelihood of Qaddafi stepping down; if he steps down he exposes himself to prosecution whereas he stands a fighting chance of avoiding the war crimes tribunal if he clings to power. The freezing of assets is a plausible way to weaken Qaddafi, but it also makes it less likely he will flee -- he would want access to his stash if he took the Idi Amin option of ignominious exile. And so on. Once Qaddafi has re-solidified control, the Obama administration will have to settle on a single coherent policy with a clear strategic objective. Will they pursue regime change? Or will they "reset" relations? If they adopt regime change as the goal, but rule out military means, they will have to change the configuration of non-military tools. If they pursue a reset, they will need far greater strategic clarity on red-lines they are willing to defend.

I hope my assessment here is too pessimistic, but it would be foolish of the administration to base their planning on such a hope. Better to do the hard work now and allow for a pleasant surprise of a better-than-forecasted outcome. We have had enough unpleasant surprises.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The politics of stability in Bahrain

It should come as no surprise that Saudi Arabia has come to the aid of Bahrain's royal family with about one thousand troops crossing the causeway between the two countries. If more troops are needed to ensure that the al-Khalifa regime does not fall, the Saudis will oblige. Put simply, Riyadh cannot tolerate Shiite domination of its offshore island, whether or not the al-Khalifas remain in power.

A Bahrain that is ruled by its Shiite majority is one-third of the ultimate nightmare for the Sunni rulers of the desert kingdom. The other two-thirds are a revolt by the Shiite majority in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, which could spill over from the troubles in neighboring Bahrain and a massive influx of Yemenis, many of whom are adherents of the Zaidi branch of Islam, and have little in common with Saudi Wahhabism.

Stability in Bahrain is therefore crucial for the long-term future of the al-Saud family as rulers of their eponymous kingdom. Indeed, Saudi Arabia's rulers fully recognize that because memories in the Middle East are very long, the fact that the Hejaz was a separate Arabian kingdom as recently as the 1920s until it was conquered by Ibn Saud and merged with his kingdom of the Nejd means that the break-up of their country is hardly impossibility.

Other Gulf States, notably Kuwait, whose rulers are close to the al-Khalifa, may join the Saudi effort to stabilize Bahrain. So might the UAE, which shares Saudi fears of Iranian domination of the island, which was once an Iranian province, and which continues to smart over the Iranian seizure of its islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in 1971.

Washington cannot sit idly by as these events take place. The 5th Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, as is the naval component of Central Command. The departure of the Navy from Bahrain would mark a signal victory for Iran, even, as is likely, the fleet were to find a new home elsewhere in the Gulf. Washington has no choice but to support the Saudi intervention.

Unfortunately, Washington appears to be willing to offer little more than words, and its words no longer carry much weight. The administration's vacillation over Libya, coupled with the imminent withdrawal of combat troops in Iraq -- where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is becoming ever more authoritarian -- has underscored a growing perception of America's declining influence in the region.

Whatever happens in Bahrain will hardly change that perception. If, as is likely, the Saudis shore up the Bahraini regime, many will view the outcome as a victory for repression, and, given Qaddafi's recent successes against the rebels, a sign of the hollowness of American pronouncements about democracy. On the other hand, if some outside chance, the Bahraini regime falls to the Shiite opposition, the fruits of victory will be reaped by Tehran, not Washington, since one of the new government's first acts would be to expel the U.S. Navy.

One can therefore only conclude that, regardless of the outcome in Bahrain, the United States may be headed for even tougher times in the Middle East than those it has experienced in the past few years.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images