The Difficulties of Intervening in Libya

No one wants to see Muammar Gaddafi retain his throne but forcing his hand could be much worse.

Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, September 23, 2009
Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, September 23, 2009 (UN/Mark Garten)

Muammar al-Gaddafi’s paramilitary forces are making an impressive comeback against the Libyan rebels who, until recently, were stringing victories around the country and capturing key cities along the Mediterranean coast. Those early successes were impressive given the rebels’ lack of a clear command and control system and the fact that many of their fighters were volunteers untrained to handle weapons.

Unfortunately, Gaddafi and his regime are playing catch up, recapturing several key oil facilities while preserving their authority in the capital city of Tripoli. Close to a month into the fight, the poorly equipped insurgents are losing the bulk of their momentum. Reports from the frontlines indicate that hundreds of their men are dying from simple wounds, while The New York Times (whose reporters have been excellent throughout the crisis) claims that food, water and basic medical supplies are running thin. All the while, Gaddafi’s personal army is continuing to bombard weapons depots and opposition controlled areas.

It should be remembered that Gaddafi was at one point the West’s most formidable enemy. In addition to providing arms to corrupt dictators on his own continent, the Libyan dictator supported terrorist operations in places as diverse as Northern Ireland and Columbia. The IRA and FARC are only two terrorist organizations that have received monetary and logistical resources from Gaddafi’s government.

In 1986, a Libyan bomb ripped through a popular discothèque in Germany, killing three off duty soldiers and wounding dozens more. Two years later, investigators implicated Libya as the offender of the Pam Am 103 airline bombing over Scotland, killing over 250 people. Qaddafi’s international reputation soared when President Ronald Reagan described him as “the mad dog of the Middle East” — a title that the Libyan leader certainly holds today as he massacres his own people.

With Gaddafi’s pariah status and increased violence in the country, an additional array of credible foreign policy figures has come out in favor of a quick and active American response. Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman were the first to suggest a no-fly zone, but the likes of President Bill Clinton and Anne Marie Slaughter (a former Obama Administration official in the State Department) have also advocated similar requests. Pundits, in the meantime, continue to pummel the president and his team for a lack of decisiveness: if the United States can’t intervene to save lives, they ask, then when can we?

Yet as articulated by the likes of Steve Clemons and Marc Lynch, a no-fly zone or an overt American presence in Libya carries with it risks that could make the situation far worse than in already is.

First among them is whether a no-fly zone would actually help the anti-Gaddafi forces in any notable way. Libyan jets would be destroyed in the event of a launch but Libya’s tanks and heavy weaponry could continue to kill people and destroy entire cities. If that were to happen, the United States and NATO would look foolish and weak, flying above while massacres happen on the ground.

Then there is the issue of Arab popular support for any Western intervention. While the Arab League, the Organization for the Islamic Conference and the Gulf Cooperation Council have all endorsed a no-fly zone, these institutions do not necessarily speak for the majority of the Arab public. Would the Arab world support a long and sustained foreign operation in another Muslim country? Will the Arab League support a prolonged intervention? With the wounds of Iraq still festering, the chances for such support are slim.

Finally, questions arise as to what would become of Libya should Gaddafi fall with the help of a foreign army. The country does not have any historical democratic roots, nor do Libyans have access to any real institutions. For over forty years, Gaddafi has marginalized or eliminated anyone and anything that could challenge his authority, including judicial systems, a strong army corps, and a responsive national parliament. Technically, Gaddafi holds no real authority in the Libyan government but he does make all of the decisions. 

What happens when the Gaddafi clan leaves? Would the rebels turn their guns on each other in search for power? If so, the United States would be thrust into another nation building situation which it is ill equipped to handle adequately. As Colin Powell once said, “if you break it, you own it.”

The fighting is escalating and the opposition is withdrawing from towns it captured only a week ago. No one, perhaps besides Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega, wants to see Gaddafi retain his throne. But actively participating in a conflict that Libyans themselves have created may not be in the best interests of Washington and its allies. If the world wants to make a difference, sending in humanitarian aid to the Libyan people, caring for refugees and possibly jamming Gaddafi’s intelligence signals to throw off his forces could be the most effective, and restrained, policy.

The American people are not looking for another war in the Muslim world but they do not want a dictator to remain in power at the same time. Threading the needle will be difficult, but it can be done.

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