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Meddling with Libya's 'mad dog' is a dangerous idea

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
  • Obama administration has been criticized for reticence about Gadhafi
  • Aaron Miller says there are many reasons to be cautious
  • He says Obama must fear risk to Americans in Libya, and must avoid empty words
  • He says the U.S. is mostly powerless to affect the direction of the Arab revolution
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Radio Free Europe broadcasts encouraged the Hungarian people to rise up against the regime and the Russians in 1956.

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He served as a Middle East negotiator in the U. S. State Department during Democratic and Republican administrations.

Washington (CNN) -- A cruel dictatorship is in the process of collapsing in Libya, repressing its own people as it dies. And yet the Obama administration has barely said a thing about it. The president's statement Wednesday condemning the repression and laying out a process to consider additional steps on Libya was remarkably cautious.

Contrast this with the president's garrulousness on Egypt when he all but called for Mubarak to begin a transition to surrender power. On one hand, the administration helped to ease a former friend and ally out of power; on the other, it appears now to permit a dictator to remain in power and wreak havoc on his own people.

Critics have jumped on the president's silence. But the hammering is unfair. The fact is there are good reasons not to pile on Gadhafi now, and here's why:

Americans in Libya. Gadhafi isn't Mubarak or any of America's autocratic friends. He is as President Reagan once described him as the "mad dog" of the Middle East. With hundreds (maybe more) of Americans still in Libya, if you were the president you'd be very concerned about the possibility of hostage taking. Ratcheting up the rhetoric with so many Americans still in the country tempts the fates with no real purpose.

Personalizing sets a precedent. Another reason for being careful about calling for Gadhafi's removal is that America is still very much caught in the devil's bargain with other Middle Eastern autocrats. If you call for Gadhafi's removal, the next question from CNN to the White House press spokesman is, "Why aren't you calling for the ouster of the equally repressive mullahcracy in Tehran?" Or if things don't work out well in Bahrain and the opposition heats up its demands and the regime cracks down, the logical next step is to call for the ouster of King Hamad or his prime minister. There's no sense in straitjacketing American policy now any more than it already is.

The Arab world's Berlin Wall is in the process of coming down; it is the Arabs themselves who are destroying it.
--Aaron David Miller
Obama: The entire world is watching
Oil companies pulling out of Libya
At the Libyan-Egyptian border
Gadhafi blames turmoil on detainees
  • Barack Obama
  • Egypt
  • Libya
  • Middle East
  • Iran

The Hungary precedent. In 1956, Hungarian insurgents rebelled against the regime and domination by the Soviet Union. U.S.-financed Radio Free Europe did not inspire the revolt but after it began, some broadcasts uncritically reported the outpouring of solidarity with the insurgents around the world and aired commentaries that gave listeners the impression that the West would provide support for the rebellion. When the crackdown came, America was nowhere to be seen.

Big talk, no action. Then there's the very real problem of talking tough with little or nothing to back it up. Words are fine; deeds are more important. Given the gap that exists between this administration's rhetoric and its delivery on issues like democracy and the Arab-Israeli peace process, we need to be very careful about pointing guns if we're not prepared to shoot.

The president is likely to ratchet up his rhetoric very soon, particularly if Gadhafi hangs on. And we may actually be forced to consider tougher actions, including sanctions and implementation of a no-fly zone to neutralize whatever air power the Libyans retain -- though how this would stop Gadhafi from killing people on the ground is unclear. On a separate issue, it's important to make clear that we are monitoring those who are committing these killings and human rights abuses and they will be prosecuted.

Still, getting in the middle of what is essentially a Libyan revolution -- given the country's unhappy history with colonial powers and foreign intervention -- will not be good for the legitimacy of what the Libyan people are trying to achieve.

The Arab world's Berlin Wall is in the process of coming down; it is the Arabs themselves who are destroying it. This perhaps is the most consequential aspect of the transformation sweeping this region.

Events in Libya are cruel and hard to watch. And we should do everything we possibly can within reason to demonstrate our support for the courageous struggle of those opposing Gadhafi. At the same time, we need to be careful. Our meddling won't make the course of political change there any easier; and it could make it a lot worse.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

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