Libya: What can and should outsiders do?

Libya: What can and should outsiders do?

I’ve been following the news of the carnage in Libya with huge sorrow, and there seems little hope it can be ended soon. Anti-Qadhafi forces seem to have taken control of large portions of the east of the country, while the country’s dangerous and possibly deranged long-time leader has been reinforcing his positions in the capital, Tripoli.

There has been a lot of anguished discussion over what outside powers should “do” about Libya, with a lot of this focusing on imposing a “no-fly zone” over the whole country, presumably with the aim of preventing Qadhafi from rushing in any more reinforcements or resupplies from elsewhere, concentrating his forces within Libya, or using his air force once again to bomb the insurgents from the air. (One good critique of this idea came from Bob Dreyfuss, here.)

Realistically, the only bodies with the capability of enforcing a no-fly zone– in a country that is v. close to Europe’s southern shores– are those associated with NATO. And they are all currently tied up in Afghanistan (where one of the main things NATO’s air assets are doing is, um, bombing insurgents.) So it is unlikely that an internationally authorized no-fly zone as such will be declared or enforced any time soon– though there is a lot that African, European, Arab, and other governments can do to ensure that flights do not leave their countries bearing suspect cargoes or passengers, and bound for Libyan airspace.

There has also been some focus on the evacuations of their nationals that various outside powers have been trying to organize (along with more than a hint that until those evacuations have been completed, the governments concerned will hold off on doing anything to antagonize Qadhafi.)

I have grave doubts about the ethics of such evacuations, as well as the broader efficacy of making them any country’s top priority. If emergency missions are dispatched to save lives, should they not save the lives of all who need to be saved, regardless of citizenship?

Hillary Clinton was quoted in today’s WaPo as saying, “In any situation, our foremost concern has to be for the safety and security of our own citizens.” Why does she still talk like a domestic politician instead of a stateswoman? Also, it simply is not true that in “any” situation the foremost concern of the U.S. government is for the safety and security of its own citizens.

The always thoughtful Issandr Amrani, writing from Egypt, considers the various options open to non-Libyan powers and says,

    Another concept one hears about is a ground invasion by Egypt to restore order. While I kind of like this concept, the Egyptian military has a country to run at the moment and no appetite for adventurism. Let’s be satisfied at least that the Arab League two days ago actually issued a condemnation of what was happening in Libya, a historic first. Arab countries are unfortunately not able to address these kinds of crises, although they should certainly move towards being able to. Even then, I doubt Libyans would be thrilled at having Egyptians in their country, and to Egyptians it might be a very foreign territory considering Libya’s tribal make-up.

We should remember, too, that Libyans are even less likely to be thrilled by any lasting footprint from Italians, Europeans, or other non-Arab powers inside their country. Reports from the “liberated” zone of Benghazi have described the emergence of large Omar Mukhtar posters there, post-liberation. 

Issandr continues:

    Another possibility is a decapitation mission against the Libyan leadership, particularly Muammar Qadhafi. I think that this mission with clearly defined and limited aims is the best choice if intervention of any kind is chosen. The only problem is that it might deprive Libyans of the pleasure of doing it themselves (although perhaps those defector pilots could be put to good use). It would obviously rely either [on] an aerial bombing mission (hard to verify success) or a special forces operation (difficult to pull off without good intelligence).

I guess I would just tweak his proposal by changing “decapitation mission” to “incapacitation mission.” I think it’s both wrong and unwise to plan outright to kill anyone, even someone who’s done such heinous things as Muammar Qadhafi. But incapacitating him– and also, crucially, the command-and-control networks through which he exercises his power– is another matter completely. 

It is of course possible that he would resist an incapacitation attempt with a bloody use of force, in which context he and others may end up getting killed. I just don’t think that should be the goal.

Another consideration: If Qadhafi himself is the victim of yet another assassination attempt launched by outside powers but his network of repression and brutality still survives, his death could end up simply hardening the resolve of the its members, led perhaps after his demise by his dreadful son Saif. Thus, the goal should be a lasting incapacitation of the network, not just the killing of the man who currently heads it.

Incapacitation could consist of a range of different actions. Qadhafi’s communications networks are an evident part of this. I imagine there are more than a few outside powers who know how these work, including maybe the Chinese and Russians.

Stopping him getting any reinforcements from outside the areas he still controls is another part of it.

Anyway, I am sure that the many defectors from the high levels of the regime– including the interior minister, for goodness’ sake!– must all have good ideas for how to incapacitate what remains of it, along with much of the information that such an effort would require. Let us not imagine for a moment that this needs to be planned or implemented by outsiders! But the Libyan oppositionists themselves need to be given all the support they need.

Issandr ends with this very important note:

    Finally, we should consider the possibility of a prolonged civil war in Libya, with or without the Qadhafis, and no foreign intervention. Someone will be selling weapons to one side or the other. Perhaps some are even considering arming one side, at least so they can defend themselves. I doubt many people want more weapons in Libya, but this is the way things are likely to head if there is no decisive victory by one side or the other. And the best way to avoid that would be to start the political contacts between former Qadhafi regime members, opposition figures and tribal leaders as soon as possible. And that’s something that Egypt and Tunisia, with their familiarity with this little-known country, might be in the best position to offer.

Actually, prolonged civil war or not, the kind of political contacts Issandr is urging are surely a key both to the speedy success of the campaign to oust Qadhafi, and to maximizing the chances that a stable and accountable successor regime can be be established in that long-traumatized country, as soon as possible after his departure. And he’s right that in helping to orchestrate such contacts, Egypt and Tunisia both have a lot to offer. Except that, um, those countries do also have some other urgent challenges of their own right now… 

The very best of luck to the peoples of all three of these countries as they deal with the huge challenges they now face.


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