Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared before the Senate on Thursday, and was asked for his opinion on the likely outcome of the Libya crisis. Clapper said he thought Qaddafi was likely to prevail.
This caused virtually everyone in Washington to freak out. Coupled with his assessment that the greatest “mortal threats” facing the United States were Russia and China – not North Korea and Iran, the preferred choices of Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) – Clapper’s testimony has led to calls for his resignation. The White House hasn’t rolled the infamous blood-stained Obama Bus out of the garage just yet, but has made it clear that it disagrees with its Director of National Intelligence about Russia, China, and especially Libya.
I’m no fan of James Clapper. I don’t think he should have survived his legendary moment of clueless wonder when informed about major terror busts in Great Britain on national television back in December. However, the answers he gave Thursday shouldn’t be career killers. His assessment of the Russian and Chinese threats was roughly as undiplomatic as playing “Battle On Shangganling Mountain” at a White House state dinner, but certainly arguable… and he’s probably right about Libya.
Qaddafi has been doing quite well for himself over the last few days. His forces have apparently retaken the city of Zawiya, after blasting it into flaming rubble. The same treatment is under way at the oil port of Ras Lanouf, hit with “a withering rain of rockets and tank shells on Thursday,” according to the Associated Press. A rebel leader said they were up against “four battalions heavily equipped with airpower, tanks, missiles, everything.”
There was a moment, when Qaddafi hid in his Tripoli palace like a cornered rat, that decisive international action might have toppled him. At the very least, denying him access to the Libyan sky would have drastically reduced his military strength. The conventional police-action concept of a “no fly zone” would have been less effective, and more difficult to stage, than a swift air assault designed to blow his jets and helicopters apart on the ground, and take out his airports.
That’s all in the past now. The world waited for American leadership, but the forgotten President threw himself a couple of big parties and headed for the golf course. British Prime Minister David Cameron stepped in to fill the void of Free World leadership, but it was too late. Qaddafi has used air power and artillery with brutal disregard for collateral damage, and he appears ready to make good on his son’s promise to fight for power until “the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.” Every weapon becomes far more dangerous in the hands of someone who will not hesitate to pull the trigger.
President Obama finally rolled in from the back nine to address the one global crisis he can’t hide from: the danger of revolution in Saudi Arabia. There are supposed to be big protests on Friday. The Saudi government has already pumped rubber bullets into a smaller demonstration. The President is due to give a press conference on rising oil prices late Friday morning. Since he is largely responsible for them, as a matter of deliberate policy, he’ll have no one but himself to blame if the conference turns into a volley of questions about the devastating effects of Saudi instability.
You’ve probably noticed the effect of the Libyan crisis on gas prices. If Saudi Arabia dissolves into chaos, your next fill-up will be a real horror show. The Saudis are our third-largest oil supplier, after Canada and Mexico. Libya isn’t even in the top 15. Qaddafi’s civil war has put about two percent of the world’s oil production at risk. Saudi Arabia supplies over 10 percent.
What has been unleashed in the Middle East is an ugly process of evolution through revolution, and its fundamental principle is “survival of the worst.” A well-armed despot with a thirst for blood has a good chance of fighting his way out of a corner, as Qaddafi is doing… or smothering the flames of democracy before an uprising can become a serious threat, as Syria and Iran have done. Those who are unwilling or unable to sink to such grisly depths will most likely end up like Hosni Mubarak.
That’s not an endorsement of brutality. The United States was not meant to sharpen the knives of important tyrannical allies, and hand them a butcher’s apron. Instead, it means we should act to ensure the worst are not the sole survivors of the wildfire that raced out of Tunisia. The Administration’s strategy of waiting to see how things shake out, and then declaring its support for the victors, is a lazy abdication of both global responsibility and national interest. Voting “present” on Libya was a ghastly mistake. It won’t be an option in Saudi Arabia.
Someone in the national intelligence apparatus should have been poring over strategic and political maps of the Middle East as soon as the Tunisian uprising booted out its President-For-Life, choosing where and how America would speak and act. It never should have come down to the perpetually befuddled James Clapper finally getting something right, and being excoriated for his troubles.