February 24, 2011
Moammar Ghadafi’s days as Libya’s maximum dictator days are numbered. With or without America and the European Union’s assistance, the forces of the “February 17 Revolution” will ultimately prevail in Libya. The tide of the civil war has irreversibly shifted to anti-government forces that control Libya’s eastern provinces, and most major cities in the west. On Friday, the fall of Zawiya to opposition forces after a bloody see-saw battle brought the revolution to within 28 miles of the capital. In Tripoli, Ghadafi remains holed up in a fortified compound while loyalist militiamen and mercenaries roam the streets firing on civilians in a desperate attempt to maintain control of his last stronghold. That Moammar Ghadhafi’s criminal rule will end soon is no longer the issue; the question is how much more death and destruction Ghadafi will visit on Libya before he ultimately deposed. For President Obama, America’s role in shaping the “end game” of the February 17 Revolution and Libya’s post-Ghadafi order will have immediate and far reaching implications across the Middle East—a region already rent with political turmoil from Bahrain to Morocco. Thus a valid question arises: How will President Obama respond to the crisis and what vital American strategic interests are at stake in Libya?
Under fire by Libya’s opposition forces and internationally for refusing to call on Ghadafi to abdicate power, on February 23 President Obama called the “suffering of the Libyan people outrageous and unacceptable,” and directed his administration to prepare the full range of options to respond. On Thursday, after consulting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President
Nicolas Sarkozy and Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Obama’s Press Secretary said “the situation demands quick action” and warned that all options, including “military action” are on the table. Translated from “diplomatic speak,” President Obama and his allies have reached consensus to prepare for air
strikes against Ghadafi unless he relinquishes power. Decapitating surgical air strikes to eliminate Ghadafi and his strategic command and control facilities is the quickest path to the end the civil war. And there are several compelling reasons driving President Obama and his allies to bring a speedy resolution to the Libyan crisis.
First, the United States and the European Union will be condemned by international public opinion and the “Arab Street” if Ghadafi is allowed to commit more horrific acts of genocide against Libyan citizens. Furthermore, Libyan resentment at western intervention too long delayed could cripple America’s effort to play a significant role in post-Ghadafi Libya, giving jihadist forces a powerful propaganda tool as portraying America as being more concerned with extracting oil than saving the lives of Libya’s people.
Second, concerns are growing that Ghadafi will sabotage the nation’s oil infrastructure to wreck havoc on international oil markets. Oil prices jumped 20% to a two-year high over the past week—reaching $99.77 per barrel in Friday’s trading in New York and $114.20 in London. Protecting Libya’s energy platform is
critical to minimize spiking oil prices for Western European nations that receive 85 percent of Libya’s oil exports. Any long-term disruption of Libyan crude exports could have devastating effects on America’s fragile economic recovery. More importantly for Libya’s future, safeguarding the nation’s energy
infrastructure is critical for generating the revenue necessary to sustain a post-Ghadafi government.
Third, a quick end to the civil war will maximize the prospects of a post-Ghadafi Libya maintaining its integrity as a unitary state–one that is friendly to American interests. A long and bloody civil war will increase the prospects of more radical and potentially anti-American forces rising to leadership positions within the anti-government coalition. The recent history of Iraq and Afghanistan also suggests that when societies overturn authoritarian rule, political, tribal, religious and geographical differences rise to the
surface, carrying with them the seeds of fragmentation and sectarian division. Libya’s anti-government forces comprise a broad cross section of society: businessmen, military forces that have crossed over, youth, workers, Islamists and diverse tribal forces. Today, they are united in their efforts to overthrow
Ghadafi but once he is ousted, these differences can pose serious challenges to forming a viable post-Ghadafi governance structure. Libya is still a profoundly tribal society. Indeed, Ghadafi’s ability to rule as dictator for 41 years was in large measure based on his ability to manage and balance Libya’s complex
constellation of tribal forces through bribery, coercion and divide-and-rule tactics.
With the closing of the United States embassy in Tripoli and the evacuation of American nationals from Libya on Friday, the Obama administration appears to be moving into high gear. Obama announced sanctions against the Libyan government blocking transactions involving the assets of Moammar Ghadafi and some of his key associates. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Clinton prepared to depart for Geneva, Switzerland to build consensus for a broader international response to the Libyan crisis at the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday. But it is highly unlikely that the U.N. will take any decisive action. The U.N. Security Council has only voted twice to authorize military intervention; in Korea in 1950 and
Iraq in 1991. Nor is it likely that the U.N. will agree on a resolution to institute a “no fly zone” over Libya. Russia and China have already indicated Libya’s crisis as an “internal matter.” So what will the Obama administration do?
In truth, President Obama has two options. The first is let Libya’s civil war run its course in hopes that hard-core elements of Ghadafi’s Revolutionary Committees disintegrate or turn on their leader. The second is to pursue military action to end the civil war. In 1992, America joined Britain, France
and Turkey to institute a “no fly zone” over Iraq without a United Nation’s resolution. Or Obama can follow President Clinton’s model who justified his America’s bombing of Serbia for “humanitarian, practical and strategic reasons.” It’s time for President Obama and European Union leaders to make a choice.