The United States involvement in Libya is on a lot of people’s' minds these days. With the country already embroiled in two other conflicts simultaneously, the thought of entering a third is even less than palatable. Especially another in the Middle East. Too get a few questions on the subject answered we sought out the opinion of African foreign policy expert, Michael D. Johns. Mr. Johns graciously accepted our offer for a brief Q&A; here are his thoughts on matters.
Bio: Michael Johns is one of several national founders and leaders of the U.S. Tea Party movement and one of the nation’s première experts on Africa. He is the former Third World and Africa policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research institute, and editor of The U.S. and Africa Statistical Handbook and numerous articles and studies on U.S. policy in Africa. He has traveled extensively throughout the continent.
Michael also has served as a White House speechwriter to President George H. W. Bush, a senior aide to former New Jersey Governor and 9/11 Commission Chairman Tom Kean (R-NJ), and a senior United States Senate aide. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, National Review, and other national media. He has appeared on CBS News, PBS, CNBC, C-SPAN, Al Jazeera, Fox Morning News, and other networks. He is a graduate of the University of Miami, where he majored in economics and graduated with honors.
On April 3, 2011, he spoke with Western Experience about current events in Libya and U.S. policy in North Africa.
1. TWE: Before we get into the United States Libyan policies can you provide some background on Libyan society, culture, or history that may be pertinent to the present situation?
Michael Johns: Libya is one of several countries in the Maghreb region of north Africa. It has been run in a hugely autocratic fashion by Muammar al-Gaddafi since 1969 when Gaddafi overthrew King Idris, who had maintained somewhat close relations with the West. Since taking power, Gaddafi has run Libya as an oppressive, terrorist state, employing huge numbers of Libyans in domestic surveillance. As many as one in five Libyans have worked in this capacity, which has created a totalitarian political climate where all political dissent has been suppressed. Dissidents have been routinely jailed and killed. During the Cold War, Libya was largely aligned with the Soviet bloc, and Gaddafi has been an international force in terrorism. He has been a destabilizing force in neighboring Chad. He financed the Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympics. He has provided support to multiple terrorist organizations, including the PLO, FARC and IRA. He applauded the murder of Anwar Sadat in Egypt. And he ordered and supported the 1986 Berlin discotheque and 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombings, both of which killed Americans. For these and other reasons, Gaddafi has a deserved reputation as a malicious and malevolent force in global affairs.
2. TWE: As someone who was involved in the inner workings of the Reagan foreign policy arm and considering the well-known adversarial posture which Gaddafi took with the United States in the eighties, can you provide a comparison between the way in which Reagan dealt with Gaddafi versus Obama?
Michael Johns: Ronald Reagan saw Gaddafi very accurately as an international terrorist who needed to be isolated and opposed. He imposed harsh economic sanctions on Libya in 1986. After it became clear that Gaddafi had orchestrated the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing, which targeted United States’ soldiers, Reagan also ordered Operation El Dorado Canyon, bombing about half a dozen strategic targets in Libya. The U.S. operation greatly weakened Libya’s military power and, most importantly, sent the message that the U.S. was resolute in responding promptly and aggressively to acts of terrorism directed at Americans. In this respect, Reagan’s Libya policy was both measured, strategic and successful. Obama’s Libya policy, on the other hand, is pretty incomprehensible. On one hand, he has said that Gaddafi needs to go. On the other, he’s said that Gaddafi’s departure is not a strategic goal of our current military mission in Libya. This is a critical moment in Libya and north African history, and Obama has not demonstrated any forceful support for freedom in the region or even a comprehensible U.S. policy to the current Libyan uprising. Reagan and Obama both faced challenges in Libya. Reagan handled those challenges thoughtfully and forcefully, but Obama has been indecisive and largely ineffective. Absent a coherent strategic objective closely aligned with the advancement of U.S. interests, my own sense is that we’d be better off not engaging militarily at all in Libya. If removing Gaddafi and ensuring a transition to a less oppressive, less hostile regime is not the objective, it seems the risk/benefit is too weighted to high risk and minimal benefit.
3. TWE: At what point did our business and trade relations turn into a paternal relationship in the ME? The US has an obligation to protect its interests in the ME (Carter Doctrine) but how do we move away from our current humanitarian posture and put interest over sentiments?
Michael Johns: I believe that U.S. foreign policy in the region, like U.S. foreign policy anywhere, has to be judged by this singular question: How is it advancing U.S. strategic and other interests? The humanitarian components of U.S. foreign policy have sometimes taken on a life of their own, not closely aligned with U.S. interests, and sometimes these policies have even worsened humanitarian conditions in the nations we are seeking to help. Foreign aid, for instance, has very commonly hurt, not helped, the underlying conditions it was designed to address. All that said, I do believe that U.S. interests are to see economic and political liberty expanded. If the current uprisings in the region end up serving those ends, they will be hugely constructive. Alternatively, if they further expand Islamic extremism in the region, they will prove counterproductive. The biggest issue, in my view, is that U.S. influence in the Middle East and the world as a whole is diminishing under this administration, and that lessens the options available to us to protect and advance U.S. interests in the region at what is undeniably an historic moment of change.
4. TWE: With the amount of changes in American foreign policy over the past decade, do you believe that our actions in Libya indicate a shift towards a more multilateral/subordinate role for the United States?
Michael Johns: One of the biggest ongoing themes of the past few decades has been the globalization of American foreign policy and national security in almost all functional areas and geographic regions. My own view is that when the world is aligned with U.S. interests, that’s good. But our foreign policy and national security cannot rest in the hands of the United Nations or other multinational bodies, or we will continue to see policy objectives less aligned with our national interests. In the case of Libya, we need to decide what is in the U.S. interest and then pursue those goals, not subject ourselves to some diluted consensus vision developed by other nations. The U.S. should be leading a Libya policy, not following one developed by other nations.
5. TWE: Considering the conflicting messaging coming from the administration towards our goals we are attempting to achieve in Libya in your opinion is this indicative of confusion within the higher levels of the administration as how we need to progress? If so, do you see this confusion potentially impairing our military’s ability to operate and execute their mission as we have seen in past conflicts?
Michael Johns: Some of it is confusion. There is not a lot of national security or foreign policy brain power in this administration, and Obama himself has had no such experience before his 2008 election. In essence, this mess of a policy is what it looks like to have a community organizer running American foreign policy. But it’s not just confusion. Some of it is just poor, unprincipled thinking. For instance, this administration seems hugely tolerant of some of the most repressive, hostile regimes in the world. It does not seem to have any organized, coherent vision of the world, or what the U.S. should be doing to defend and advance its global interests. And routinely, this administration has been silent when opportunities have emerged to support constructive change. For instance, they stood by idly as the Iranian regime largely crushed the Green Revolution. That is the sort of non-action that hurts U.S. interests not just in Iran, but around the world. Other movements and nations aligned with liberty around the world begin to see that U.S. support is unreliable and unpredictable, and that’s the message this administration has sent.
6. TWE: With what seems to be a failure of a thriving democracy to spread in Iraq (at least not to expectations) and Afghanistan despite billions of dollars of investments and direct American support, do Egypt, Libya and Syria have a chance?
Michael Johns: I think they do have a chance. In fact, this may be the best opportunity these three nations have had in decades to develop a more tolerant, less oppressive governments. But the U.S. should be forcefully supportive of these objectives in these nations. Instead, we seem to have greatly diminished influence and credibility in the region. This is good news for tyrants and bad news for liberty advocates in these nations.
7. TWE: Among the power brokers and money men, are there any “good guys” in the Middle East?
Michael Johns: I’ve spent a lot of time in the region and developed many relationships and friendships, but there is risk in calling anyone a “good guy.” I am very supportive of the Green Revolution in Iran and believe it contains many positive figures. Israel, of course, continues to be a strong ally, but they also increasingly see us as unpredictable and our relationship with Israel is more strained than ever, despite the fact that I think Benjamin Netanyahu is a very good and decent man. And then, obviously, we have some important strategic alliances and partnerships in the Arab world, including with Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and others, but I believe these governments will also face increasing levels of opposition if they do not meet the growing demands for political liberalization and I honestly do not know for sure that they are going to meet these demands.
8. TWE: How far do you feel the Obama administration will allow our military commitment in Libya to advance?
Michael Johns: It seems to me that they have already defined the parameters of it with the transfer of the operation to NATO allies. But that’s sort of the dilemma. It seems to me that if the mission is truly critical to U.S. interests, our role should be more expanded, and probably include regime change as a primary objective. If not, then we may well be risking American lives and treasure unnecessarily.
9. TWE: If you were part of President Obama’s inner circle and had his ear, how would you advise him to proceed in Libya?
Michael Johns: It seems to me that our on-the-ground intelligence in Libya is hugely important. Let’s face it: We do not know as much about the Gaddafi opposition as we should or could. Obviously, it would be good to see Gaddafi go, but not without some sense as to what will come next. My advice would be to better understand the opposition, cultivate relationships with it, and then support those factions that seem most committed to political liberalization and amicable relations with the U.S. If those forces exist and can be sufficiently strengthened, then this might be that once in a lifetime opportunity to remove Gaddafi and usher in a more constructive era in U.S.-Libyan relations, and that would be a reasonable and constructive objective.
We would like to thank Mr. Johns for taking the time out his busy schedule to give us a frank and coherent analysis of the Libyan situation! We also hope that you found his opinions as thought provoking and enlightening as we did. Finally, in the near future we are going to attempt to bring you more commentary from other policy experts on today’s hottest debated topics.
(Mr Johns also blogs at Michael Johns, where he covers a myriad of other politically related topics.)