Obama Libya policy: Doing nothing is not an option.

A wartime lexicon.
March 14 2011 10:53 AM

Don't Let Qaddafi Win

Ignore the "realists." If we do nothing, the situation in Libya can only get worse.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Libya conflict.

Muammar Qadaffi. Click image to expand.
Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi 

The stand of the "realist" school, and its objections to further or faster involvement in the Libya crisis, can be fairly summarized as follows:

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

1) Libya contains too many unknowns for us to be sure whom we would be supporting. We thus run the risk of breaching the principle of primo non nocere, or "first do no harm."

2) The relative calm of Tripoli, when contrasted with the upheaval in Benghazi, points to a historic east-west divide between the former provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, which predates the formation of the modern Libyan state and might itself be destabilizing. The West might inadvertently ignite a sectarian regionalism culminating in fragmentation or partition.

3) The U.N. Security Council will not legalize the means with which to remove Muammar Qaddafi.

4) The Arab world is highly dubious about Western intervention and quick to take offense at anything smacking of a revived colonialism.

5) A "no-fly zone" is less simple than it sounds, since it necessarily involves a confrontation with a Russian-built air-defense system and would almost certainly necessitate the next step, which would be boots-on-the-ground military action and perhaps a period of occupation, for which the portents are not encouraging.

6) Political change in Libya should, in any case, be the work—as with the precedents of Tunisia and Egypt—of home-grown social forces.

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The first two points are quite strong ones, but they become less persuasive unless one assumes the persistence in power of the Qaddafi clan. The actual evidence, however, is that Qaddafi senior has reached his Ceausescu moment: a full-dress (in the literal sense) meltdown into paranoia, megalomania, and delusion. His recent speeches and appearances have shown him stinking with madness and hysteria. His age and condition, at any rate, set a very sharp limit to the duration of his regime. If that regime implodes while he is still "in place," then all the grim consequences foreseen by the realists will be incurred in any case. Weapons will get into the wrong hands; divide-and-rule tactics (already a stock in trade) will intensify; religious and tribal passions will be deliberately inflamed. The main difference will be that we merely watched this happen.

It might bear remembering that when, in 1989, Ceausescu did try to go to war with his own population, Secretary of State James Baker made the unprecedented public statement that the United States would not object to a Russian intervention to spare further chaos and misery in Romania. Are the Russians and the Chinese so wedded to the legal niceties, or so proud of their association with Qaddafi, that they would repudiate a speech from President Barack Obama in which he asked for reciprocation? We cannot know this if such a speech is never made or even contemplated.

Further, to points (3) and (4): The Arab League has now itself broken with decades of torpor, declared the Qaddafi regime illegitimate, and called for the imposition of a no-fly zone. This unprecedented resolution, which is not contradicted by any measurable pro-Qaddafi opinion in the legendary "Arab street," seems to draw much of the sting from the realist concern about regional opinion. The Shiite population has not forgotten Qaddafi's role in the disappearance and presumed murder of Imam Musa Sadr; Saudi officials have been targeted by his death squads; many other states have cause to resent his criminal meddling over the years.