As rebel forces take town after town originally held by forces loyal to Gaddafi, a strange dilemma faces the international forces aligned against the dictator: if the rebels threaten Sirte, Gaddafi’s strong hold, would it not be the rebels rather than the Libyan army threatening civilians? To be sure, Gaddafi’s forces have a track record of violence against civilians while the rebels arguably have had public opinion on their side and opposed the military. There have been no complaints of rebels targeting civilians as they retook Ajdabiya, Brega, Uqayla, and Ras Lanuf. Still, in Sirte these differences become problematic, and any video of civilian casualties threaten to undermine the international mission.
So far, those videos and pictures have been scarce to non-existent. Tours arranged for international media in Tripoli to see civilian damage end up either coming back with nothing (“we couldn’t find the address”) or showing a site where any damage is ambiguous — perhaps it was caused by NATO, but perhaps not. And with Gaddafi snipers and mercenaries in operation, it’s hard to pin any civilian deaths on the coalition at this point.
That means that right now the UN backed mission in Libya still holds the moral high ground, at least in relative terms. All that could change if the rebels, not under clear control nor guided by one over-arching ideology or aim, start taking revenge on pro-Gaddafi civilians or turning on each other.
This means that it is imperative that the UN and NATO plan and execute an end game as soon as possible, perhaps in time to be announced Monday night when President Obama addresses the nation. The end game must include: a) a cease fire on all sides; b) a way for Gaddafi to go into exile with a credible chance at avoiding persecution for war crimes; c) a peace keeping mission including and perhaps dominated by the Arab League and African Union; and d) a clear plan for moving to democratic elections.
If the UN can pull this off, the message to other dictators is clear: the international community will no longer allow an abstract claim of sovereignty to protect their grip on power. Even if Libya is sovereign, Gaddafi doesn’t necessarily get to claim the right to sovereignty just because he has power. That notion of sovereignty is at odds with the principle of the UN charter.
The US wars against Iraq and Afghanistan have allowed dictators to breath easy. The US certainly won’t get involved in another conflict after those have weakened the country and divided the public! With the American economy still wobbly and still in danger of further decline, the US seems certain to become more isolationist. Gaddafi certainly was thinking that way when he launched his counter offensive.
President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates were thinking that way early on too — it’s a rational position, one mirrored by the military establishment. But French President Sarkozy and ultimately Secretary of State Clinton realized that if a truly international coalition — one without the US as the leader and motivator — were to be able to succeed rather easily, that would have the opposite effect: dictators would realize it’s risky to use force to stay in power. Decisions like Mubarak’s to leave freely would seem more rational than those like Gaddafi’s to fight for power. That’s why it was so important that Obama remain relatively on the sidelines and not highlight the US role (even if in practical terms US firepower dominated the response).
This also means that should Gaddafi finally be compelled to leave — and the pressure on him is mounting — a new Libya can be constructed on Libyan terms, without it seeming like the US or the West is imposing a government on the country just to control its oil or engage in neo-colonialism. If that works it could have a chilling effect on other Arab dictatorships, especially in Syria where the government has already unleashed a crackdown.
The calculation is simple: the US wouldn’t be stupid enough to get involved in anything like Iraq again since once the bombing starts, you have to see it through. The failures of the US in Iraq cause Syria’s Assad to believe he’s invulnerable as long as he can crack down on his population. But if Libya proves that the international community can mount an effective low cost counter to dictatorial crackdowns, then the calculation changes. In a best case scenario, dictators decide early on to leave freely in exchange for a relatively comfortable retirement.
Gaddafi, of course, could still fight to the end, meaning that the intervention becomes costlier and this model of countering dictators fails. And who knows what kind of government might emerge in Libya after the fighting. But whatever problems may come, it’s important now that NATO and the UN push for an end game so that this does not drag out. There is reason to believe the end may be in sight.