The West's Nightmare Europe's Leaders Fear Libya Could Become Next Afghanistan

The Europeans and Americans would like to help the rebels in Libya, but the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan have spurred fears of a military intervention. So far, the only thing the EU has been able to agree on are financial sanctions. In Germany, leaders fear getting sucked in to the civil war. By SPIEGEL Staff


There are times when some politicians and diplomats in Europe and the United States wish that someone would die. They wish that a head of state or government would give the order to dispatch a number of aircraft or launch a few missiles. They don't speak openly of this, of course, but they do say these things under their breath. "Why doesn't somebody just shoot him?" they ask. Usually, this hope is directed by Europe toward America.

This is again such a time. A number of politicians and diplomats are quietly hoping that they will hear one morning on the radio that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi has died during the night. According to this scenario, the news bulletin will then inform listeners that an American bomber squadron has safely returned to its aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean.

The current situation calls to mind former US President Ronald Reagan. He tried to eliminate Gadhafi back in April 1986. At the time, Reagan ordered 36 laser-guided bombs to be dropped on the Bab al-Azizija military compound, Gadhafi's command center in the suburbs of Tripoli. Gadhafi survived. Reagan was derided for the failed mission and sharply criticized for the attempt. Some Western countries view such actions as murder -- and thus unacceptable.

When it comes to war and the West, it always boils down to a question of ethics. Now all eyes are directed toward US President Barack Obama. What will he do? He has the arsenal required to make a renewed attempt, but he apparently also has greater scruples.

Merkel Skeptical

The same holds true for the Europeans. At their summit in Brussels on Friday, European Union leaders called for Gadhafi to immediately resign. Although a military operation has not been ruled out, it has been made contingent on the approval of the United Nations, the Arab League and the African Union. Speaking after the meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel underscored that she was highly skeptical about a no-fly zone. The EU is relying on economic sanctions for the time being.

This is a nightmarish situation for the West. For years, Europe and America have courted Gadhafi and regarded him as a valuable business partner, without giving so much as a second thought to the suffering of his people. Now a large proportion of this oppressed population is fighting for its freedom, but the West is doing little to halt the advances made by Gadhafi's loyal supporters. The West wants to help, but it remains helpless.

In this situation, the countries of the West are damned if they do, damned if they don't. If they only sit back and watch, they tacitly accept that Gadhafi will probably crush the rebellion and take terrible revenge. If they intervene, they will have to be prepared to kill, and innocent people may die. And if they enter into this conflict, they will need a concrete exit strategy.

Iraq and Afghanistan

As politicians in Europe and America grapple with the issue of Libya, they are strongly influenced by the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two predominantly Muslim countries have been attacked and occupied, also with the aim of creating a better world according to Western models. But these have not been success stories. The regimes backed by the West have been dubious, to say the least, and the security situation remains precarious. After more than nine years of fighting, war continues to rage in Afghanistan.

The negative experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have sown doubt in America and Europe about the morality of these missions. Gadhafi benefits from these misgivings, but that doesn't mean that they are wrong.

There is no easy solution for Libya à la Reagan -- whose botched bombing mission didn't solve anything anyway. There is only a long and difficult search for a way to help the country's population, without upsetting the population in Europe, which would like to avoid at all costs another protracted war in a Muslim country.

As a preliminary step, the US has severed all ties with the "existing Libyan Embassy" in Washington, but continues to maintain diplomatic relations with Libya. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to northern Africa this week to meet with Gadhafi's rivals. According to the State Department, she has already contacted members of the opposition, both inside and outside of Libya.

Obama Rules Out Unilateral Action

Military action is also being discussed. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels last Thursday: "We agree that we will continue with the planning of all military options."

But the Obama administration has ruled out taking unilateral action. White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley recently said: "All options are on the table. But it has to be an international mission."

Since a UN resolution currently appears unlikely, NATO is the only organization that comes into question for joint military operations. A high-ranking US government official said in Brussels last Wednesday: "The US believes that NATO is the natural choice for a military operation."

But Obama continues to hesitate, and this lack of action is drawing increasing criticism. James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, recently warned a Senate committee that the opposition won't be able to topple the dictator on its own. Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain and independent Senator Joe Lieberman are both criticizing Obama's reluctance to intervene. They say that he has to do more to support the opposition. McCain, for his part, is calling for a no-fly zone.

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