Time for the Administration to Act on Libya

Washington may have limited leverage, but it can still mobilize a broad international coalition against Muammar al-Gaddafi.

President Barack Obama is briefed in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington DC, September 2, 2010
President Barack Obama is briefed in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington DC, September 2, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

Libya, the home of the most cruel, egocentric and bizarre dictatorship of modern history, is now at a crossroads.

As Western television news stations begin to wean off of the Egyptian euphoria of the past month, journalists from Al Jazeera are publishing accounts of brazen violence from Muammar al-Gaddafi’s government and risking their own lives to broadcast images of security forces massacring ordinary demonstrators in the streets.

The scenes from Libya are truly horrifying. Witnesses, activists, demonstrators and international human rights monitors are all coming back to the press with the same observations: Gaddafi’s loyalists are using every tool at their disposal to quell the unrest and preserve their regime.

Human Rights Watch, the world’s preeminent independent human rights organization, estimates that over three hundred people have been slaughtered by Libyan paramilitary troops in just six days of protest and that number is likely to go up as this is being written.

Militias loyal to the elder Gaddafi, who has ruled the country for over 42 years, are not hesitating to mow down marchers with the use of heavy weaponry, including .42 caliber machine guns strapped to Range Rovers and SUVs. Libyan warplanes and helicopters have also been used with frequency to circle protesters and harass them with a barrage of bullets in the hope of deterring them from speaking out. According to Al Jazeera and as reported by The Washington Post, 61 people were killed in a single night in Tripoli; a death toll that eclipses the casualties of the Bahrain and Yemeni protests combined.

The situation is highly chaotic and the fact that the international media is forbidden from reporting the events makes it difficult to confirm anything before events make their way to Twitter and Facebook. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that Gaddafi’s hold on power is starting to erode despite his desperate and brutal attempts to kill anyone who opposes his rule.

As has been reported, Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, is now under near complete control of anti-government forces, all of which have been reinforced by defecting Libyan soldiers sick of the regime. But far more significant to the current unrest is the resignations of senior Libyan officials, all of whom have given up their positions due to their disgust with Gaddafi’s handling of the crisis. The country’s justice minister and ambassadors to India and the United States have announced their departures in recent days; a graphic illustration of how unpopular Gaddafi has become among members in his inner circle. The interior minister has also parted ways with the regime; quite significant given that ministry’s responsibility of maintaining order throughout the country.

And in a society that is largely hinged on the cooperation of tribes, Libyan tribal leaders are now demanding that Gaddafi stop the violence. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric with a regional following, went so far as to encourage anyone in earshot of Gaddafi to get rid of him. i.e.: shoot to kill.

All of this is happening yet the United States are largely silent. With the exception of a few official statements condemning the violence from the White House and the State Department, Washington has failed to publicly denounce Gaddafi for what he is — a despot willing to murder his own people in order to hold on to his ego and disillusion.

If Gaddafi is willing to permit the aerial bombardment of civilians, he is certainly willing to shed a lot more blood if the protests refuse to die down.

Yet thankfully, if there was any country that the United States could afford to take action against, it is Libya. Relations between Washington and Tripoli have been nonexistent for four decades and official contacts were only reestablished in 2004 when Gaddafi gave up his nuclear and chemical weapons programs. There is no strategic stake for the Obama Administration to ensure that Gaddafi is nudged out of power slowly, as was the case with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. It’s not like Gaddafi is party to a peace agreement with Israel, nor is he a man that has hosted diplomatic discussions for the purpose of pursuing peace in the region.

Rather than holding its breath and hoping that Libya calms down in the next few days, the White House should make an unequivocal and bold statement that any more violence against the Libyan people will be met with an equally harsh response. Unilateral economic sanctions would be a start, as would a binding resolution from the United Nations Security Council explicitly charging Gaddafi and his generals with human rights abuses.

Washington must also appeal to the Arab world at large, working with regional heavyweights as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar in an effort to marginalize the Libyan regime further.

Absent this, the United States could very well end up looking like it’s being caught flatfooted during another Arab revolution. If there were any scenario for renewed American leadership, this would surely be it.