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Government, Politics & Issues

As Libya burns with protests, some urge U.S. action, others caution

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2011 - WASHINGTON - As Libya's erratic leader, Moammar Gadhafi, tried to quash protests with force and vowed to remain until "the end," many U.S. elected officials urged the White House on Tuesday to do what it can to hasten that end to the regime.

But experts on the region cautioned that the kerosene of rhetoric could exacerbate what is already a fiery and chaotic situation in Libya, one that could easily tip into a bloody civil war.

One U.S. senator who spoke in favor of a more outspoken American response to the Libyan crackdown was U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who described it as "inhumane and absolutely unacceptable."

In a statement, Blunt said Gadhafi's "crackdown is an assault on the Libyan people's desire to claim their rightful freedoms, and the United States should stand beside them in condemning Gadhafi's actions in the strongest possible way."

Among the Democrats calling for more engagement was Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Condemning the actions ordered by Gadhafi against protesters as "beyond despicable," Kerry called on the United States and other countries to exert pressure to end the regime.

In a statement, Kerry said the Libyan government's "use of deadly force against its own people should mean the end of the regime," which he described as "irredeemable." Noting that former President George W. Bush had lifted U.S. sanctions against Libya when the country agreed to dismantle its nuclear program, Kerry urged the White House to re-impose those sanctions as a protest. He also said international oil companies should "immediately cease operations in Libya until violence against civilians ceases."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, "The violence by President Gadhafi and his security forces against the Libyan people, who have suffered for decades under his rule, must stop." In a statement to the Beacon, McCaskill said, "It is imperative that the Libyan government listen and respond to the grievances of its own people. The situation is extremely serious in Libya, and I hope that it can be resolved without further bloodshed."

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said Tuesday that "the international community should take decisive action to defend the people of Libya and put an end to Moammar Gadhafi's egregious violation of human rights. I urge the president to exercise his authority under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and impose targeted sanctions on Gadhafi, his family and the mercenaries he hired to murder Libyan citizens."

In a statement, Kirk said that the International Emergency Economic Powers Act grants the president the authority to impose sanctions to "deal with any unusual and extraordinary threat, which has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States, to the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States."

U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was "deeply concerned for the safety of Libya's citizens and appalled by the Gadhafi regime's violence against its own people."

In a statement to the Beacon, Carnahan said, "The ongoing unrest in the Middle East clearly impacts families and businesses here in Missouri, as evidenced by the spike in oil prices as the situation in Libya has deteriorated." U.S. stock prices also fell Tuesday in the wake of the continued unrest in North Africa and the Middle East.

Carnahan said Libya is a good example of why this country "must remain committed to engagement and building relationships through international organizations. When the U.S. lacks strong diplomatic ties with a foreign government, these alliances are the best way to exert our influence and protect American economic and national security interests."

As of late Tuesday, Obama had remained mostly silent on Libya, apparently heeding the advice of experts who say that Libya's situation is not parallel with Egypt and Tunisia -- where growing protests eventually led to regime changes.

At a news conference Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said once U.S. officials had a clearer understanding of events in Libya, "we will take appropriate steps in line with our policies, our values and our laws." She added, however, that "we are going to have to work in concert with the international community."

So far, Clinton told reporters, "we have joined with the international community in strongly condemning the violence in Libya and we believe that the government of Libya bears responsibility for what is occurring and must take actions to end the violence."

Experts Say Libya's Situation Differs from Egypt

The administration's caution appears to be related to its lack of direct leverage on Libya as well as Gadhafi's volatility and possible instability. The Libyan dictator, who warned of "rivers of blood" in a televised speech, suggested that the United States and NATO are planning to invade Libya and that "groups that infiltrated our cities are giving [protesters] hallucination pills."

Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, told Al Jazeera television Tuesday that the speech showed that Gadhafi is "detached from reality and believes the people are still with him and supporting him."

Egyptian-born Morris Kalliny, an assistant professor at Saint Louis University's John Cook School of Business -- and an expert on the social and economic impact of the internet, satellite television and cellphones on the Arab-speaking world -- told the Beacon Tuesday that there are many differences between the Libyan and the Egyptian situations.

"Libyans have been divided along tribal lines for a long time, and I think Gadhafi may be playing on that fact," Kalliny said. (When Italy ruled Libya as a colonial power, from the 1920s until after World War II, its provinces were mainly divided along tribal lines.) "Gadhafi said the country might be engulfed in a civil war, which scares people."

"The Libyan people were cut off from the rest of the world for a long time, up until recently," Kalliny said. "Gadhafi has blamed foreigners for the atrocities committed in Libya. He tells people there is a plan to topple his regime and bring back colonialism. But the people, more and more, don't believe him."

Kalliny, who spent his first 18 years in Egypt, said Libya has lagged behind his native country in terms of internet access and the use of social media, such as Facebook, to organize protests. But he said cellphones are common in Libya and dissidents there have used the phones in organizing protests. He contends that Arab protest movements are to a great extent a product of modern communications.

"Arab culture is changing in very significant ways. There are a tremendous number of contradictions, paradoxes that people have been able to live with in the last 10 years, but they are not going to be able to live with any longer," he said.

While the United States had tremendous leverage in Egypt -- to which it contributed about $1.5 billion a year in mostly military aid -- its leverage in Libya is comparatively small. That's one reason that many experts suggest that U.S. officials should be cautious in responding to the chaotic situation in Libya.

Parag Khanna, a geo-strategist who is a research fellow at the New America Foundation, cautioned that "it's best to stand back a while" from Libya because "we'd have to be prepared for utter chaos" if Gadhafi would suddenly leave.

"Gadhafi is the government, he is the system itself. So if he goes, the whole structure goes with him," Khanna said on CNN's "Parker Spitzer" program. He believes Gadhafi will never voluntarily leave office and that "it's virtually impossible" to pry Libyan military and security forces from Gadhafi's control. "He owns them and owns the country. Just witness the brutal response to the protests unlike Egypt or Tunisia."

But Sharqieh, telling Al Jazeera that "there is a split in the military and in state institutions," said it was not yet clear whether Libya's military would back Gadhafi's crackdown on dissidents until the bitter end.

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