Little publicized fact: Right up until the Arab League suspended Libya’s participation, due to Gaddafi’s highly visible slaughter of his own people, which country held the annually rotating presidency of the Arab League? Why, Libya. It was Muammar Gaddafi who played host to the Arab League’s summit last March, welcoming the worthies in lavish style to a gathering attended by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
That tells us something about the character of the Arab League, a club of 21 Arab states plus the Palestinian Authority. Among its more moderate members are such countries as Morocco, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. Among its — shall we say — more troubled and troubling members are Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Saudi Arabia. Founded in 1945, the Arab League has been on balance one of the modern world’s most enduring clubs of despots. Its abiding preoccupation, apart from a lot of internal squabbling, has been blaming the miseries caused by its own despotisms on the sole full-fledged and enduring democracy in the region — which is Israel.
None of that would suggest the Arab League is well-equipped to guide the Arab world into a democratic era. For the most part, it does not represent the people of its member states, but their oppressors.
But President Barack Obama, in his zeal to abdicate U.S. world leadership, has been looking to regional hubs of power to chart the way. When protests erupted into outright popular rebellion in Libya last month, and Gaddafi responded with slaughter, Obama dithered. Calls for action coming from within the U.S., or even from Europe, did not sway him. What finally galvanized him was a March 12 call from the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya. Out of that came the March 17 UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya, with its muddy mandate not to remove Gaddafi, but for “protection of civilians.” More on that in my article for NRO on “Libya’s Backseat Drivers.” This is a UN resolution tailored to the sensitivities of the Arab League (which, conveniently enough, coincide with some of the worst instincts of the Obama administration). The Arab League figures large, by name, in the resolution itself, and was credited by U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice as the inspiration for this resolution. Obama, in his peripatetic issuing of statements following this resolution — from the White House, from Brazil, from Chile, etc. — implied there would be Arab “partners” sharing the cost and responsibilities of this intervention the Arab League had called for in Libya.
So where’s the Arab League? Now that it’s come to actually using the military force and resources needed to establish the Libyan no-fly zone, the Arab League, with the exception of Qatar’s promise of a few planes, has ducked out. The League’s secretary-general, Amr Moussa, threatened from Cairo on Sunday to pull the Arab rug out from under the entire operation, because the coalition had not calibrated its use of force to suit the League’s preferences. Moussa calmed down only when it became embarrassingly clear he didn’t understand how a no-fly zone works. Iraq, now taking over the presidency of the Arab League from the otherwise-preoccupied Gaddafi, has reportedly been arguing passionately in favor of the Libyan no-fly zone, but will not be contributing to the military effort. The UAE is peeved over U.S. policy toward Bahrain, so it won’t be sending the two squadrons of jet fighters it had talked about. The Saudis are gung-ho about the no-fly zone, as long as someone else does the flying.
What function, then, has the Arab League actually served in all this? Perhaps its call and consent were needed to maneuver a no-fly resolution through the UN Security Council, where Resolution 1973 squeaked through with 10 votes for, and 5 abstentions — including veto-wielding China and Russia. But even if we assume the Arab League was vital to UN approval, what we’re left with is an Arab League whose chief role is to dispense the license for others to shoulder the risks, costs and responsibilities of riding to the rescue of desperate people in the Arab world. If it’s right for the U.S. to intervene to stop Gaddafi’s slaughter — and I think it is — swift and direct U.S. leadership, without the Arab League-UN fandango, could have saved a great many Libyan lives and sent a valuable message about where the U.S. really stands on the despotic habits that bedevil the Middle East. Is it really doing either the U.S. or the people of the Arab world any favors, to defer to such gatekeepers as the Arab League?