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Too Little, Not Yet Too Late

Western governments say they have limited options to stop Qaddafi's barbarous war on his own people. And that's true -- but they haven't even picked the low-hanging fruit yet.

Published in: Foreign Policy

Much of official Washington has greeted the evidence of an ongoing massacre in Libya with a helpless shrug. "We don't have personal relations at a high level," lamented David Mack, a former U.S. diplomat in North Africa, in a Washington Post article titled "U.S. struggles with little leverage to restrain Libyan government."

Numerous articles in recent days, clearly influenced by what U.S. officials are telling reporters on background, have stressed this theme: The United States doesn't have deep ties with the Libyan military, as it did with the Egyptian and Bahraini militaries; it does not provide large amounts of aid to the Qaddafi regime; U.S. diplomats don't have friends in the Libyan government to whom they can make reasoned arguments about the need to change their ways. Therefore, even as Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi deploys warplanes, helicopters, and troops to crush the growing challenge to his rule, it is assumed that there is nothing the United States can do about the catastrophe under way.

But wait a moment. The United States doesn't have any military or diplomatic ties with Iran either, but we don't hear U.S. diplomats whining about how they are unable to press Tehran to give up its nuclear program. Nor did they plead limited influence when the world was pressing Libya, through sanctions and other tools, to compensate the victims of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, which was carried out by a Libyan intelligence officer. When an issue is important to Washington, U.S. officials figure out what leverage they have and use it as assertively and creatively as they can. They don't make excuses.

The U.S. military's connections to Egypt and Bahrain have unquestionably proved useful at key moments in the dramas that have unfolded there in recent weeks, allowing Pentagon officials to urge counterparts they knew well to show restraint. But those connections -- and the Pentagon's fear of losing them -- also held the United States back from pressuring those countries for reforms in years past. To say that deep military-military engagement is essential to having influence -- and an unvarnished good from the standpoint of promoting human rights -- is preposterous. Such ties can be helpful at key moments, but they can also reinforce the perception that the United States supports the status quo. In Egypt and Bahrain, they created popular mistrust of the United States that will take years to overcome.

The absence of close military and diplomatic relations can also free the United States to take more decisive steps to support democratic change and restrain repressive regimes such as Libya. Indeed, the international community has exercised such leverage effectively with Libya to pursue other goals in the past. Gaddafi was so eager for Western investment to develop his oil fields that he abandoned his nuclear program in 2003, ended his support for terrorist groups, agreed to a settlement on the Pan Am bombing, and in 2007 freed a group of Bulgarian nurses spuriously charged with spreading HIV among Libyan hospital patients. In each case, the West used the stick of sanctions and isolation and the carrot of closer economic and diplomatic ties to influence Libyan behavior.

There are numerous steps the United States and its allies can take today to affect the immediate calculations of the Qaddafi regime. Europe buys 85 percent of Libya's oil, after all. And the West largely controls the international financial system through which the Libyan leadership moves its money -- and could block transactions with one word from the Treasury Department or other finance ministries. And there's more: Western governments could say today that they will seek international investigations and prosecutions of Libyan officials who murder their people. And they could offer to provide humanitarian assistance to parts of Libya that have fallen to the opposition.

Qaddafi may rail endlessly about foreign meddling, but the reaction of Western governments clearly matters to his regime. Why else would it have gone to such lengths to hide what it is doing by shutting down the Internet and communications with the outside world?

We should be under no illusion that Qaddafi himself will give in to international pressure at this point. As his brutal tactics show, he is fighting for his life. But Libya's fate is not in Qaddafi's hands; it is in the hands of those who must decide, today and tomorrow, whether to follow his orders. Every psychological blow to Qaddafi's government -- whether it is a Libyan official who defects to the opposition or a forceful repudiation of his government by the international community -- gives them another reason to refuse to commit further outrages on their leader's behalf, for which they may be held accountable when the crisis is over.

"Our leverage is limited" is a phrase diplomats use to absolve themselves from responsibility. It is both true -- after all, U.S. influence is never unlimited -- and utterly irrelevant. The only question the United States and other countries should be asking now is how to use the leverage they have to bring the calamity unfolding in Libya to an end.

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