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.

Qaddafi is also particularly disliked in Egypt, whose armed forces we have been sustaining at a high level of sophistication (and expense) for several decades. Should the Obama administration not now be pressing Egypt to give point to its Arab League vote and to take a share of responsibility for local law enforcement? It would be a great baptism of the new Egyptian republic. But, again, one hears only the sound of shuffling.

As to the feasibility of a no-fly zone, I pointed out several weeks ago what I couldn't avoid noticing on two brief visits to Libya: The entire country is in effect a long strip of coastline, with a vast hinterland of desert, bordering a sea, where the strongest force by far is the Sixth Fleet. This elementary point has been taken up and elaborated in a very considered—one might almost call it realist—Wall Street Journal article by James Thomas and Zachary Cooper. These two experts at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments emphasize that "[u]nlike in the Balkans and Iraq, Libya's most populated cities and airbases are situated near its coastline, with most situated less than 10 miles from the shore" (my italics). This sheer geographical fact gives us the option of using ship- and aircraft-based missiles without sending any planes into Libyan airspace, what the authors call a "stand-off no-fly zone."

There are a number of other low-cost tactics that could affect the odds, such as jamming Qaddafi's airwaves. But what principally strikes the eye is not the absence of resources—or, indeed, options—but the absence of preparedness. When the Libyan crisis began, and for some time afterward, the Sixth Fleet did not even have a carrier in the Mediterranean. What could be less "realistic" than that? Given our long and nasty history with Qaddafi and the many signs of an impending rebellion, this seems to argue an unusual level of insouciance.

If the other side in this argument is correct, or even to the extent that it is correct, then we are being warned that a maimed and traumatized Libya is in our future, no matter what. That being the case, a piecemeal and improvised policy is the least pragmatic one. Even if Qaddafi temporarily turns the tide, as seems thinkable, and covers us all with shame for doing so, we will still have it all to do again. Let us at least hope that certain excuses will not be available next time.