Muammar Qaddafi hasn’t made much sense over the last week. About the only rational thing he’s said is that he’ll fight and die in Libya. He doesn’t have many other options, and with his regime splintering and the opposition continuing to advance on Tripoli — the city of Zawiya, 30 miles west of the capital, fell yesterday — he could be proven prescient in a matter of days.
This would be a just and welcome endpoint to his 40 years of sick misrule. Qaddafi has been the pirate king of Libya, a terrorist, murderer of Americans, and psycho who has managed to stay in power by wrecking his country and eliminating nearly all alternative sources of authority. Outside of Iran, his regime is the most poisonous expression of a badly dated post-colonial politics that blames the West for all ills. The mullahs have to be watching events in Libya with trepidation — if a revolution can come to Qaddafi’s Libya, one of the most totalitarian societies on earth, it can happen anywhere.
But Qaddafi won’t go down without one last spasm of bloodletting. His goons — loyal remnants of the security forces, together with foreign mercenaries — have been gunning protesters down in the streets. This has led to calls for the imposition of a no-fly zone. We understand and share the impulse to stanch the killing. But there are two problems with the proposed no-fly zone.
One, Qaddafi’s regime doesn’t appear to be doing much of its murder from the air. If we are serious about limiting his ability to massacre his countrymen, the no-fly zone would have to become a no machine-gun zone, too — in other words an honest-to-goodness military intervention to affect events directly on the ground. Deploying our air power while Qaddafi continued to kill with impunity would make us look more ineffectual rather than less. For now (perhaps this will change if Qaddafi begins to consolidate his position on the strength of his air force), the no-fly zone seems a classic case of looking for lost keys under the streetlight; it’s the handiest way for us to intervene, not the most effective.
Two, the rebels are on the ascendancy. Absent some drastic change in the tide of events, it looks as if they will prevail. Why would we taint what would be the indigenous glory of their ouster of Qaddafi with an almost entirely symbolic Western military action? The reason that the revolts of 2011 have had a dramatic catalyzing effect across the region, when the invasion of Iraq didn’t, is that they are the handiwork of Middle Eastern populations themselves, and thus a much more appealing model of change. Indeed, it is a sign of how home-grown these rebellions have been that President Obama’s mealy-mouthed passivity hasn’t stopped them from rolling on.
There are still things we can do at the margins to try to influence events short of a military intervention. We should recognize as soon as possible the provisional government that is forming, an entity that the rebels are creating on their own. We can make available to it the frozen assets of the Qaddafi regime and provide humanitarian aid. (If its offensive seems to be stalling out for lack of military materiel, we can always encourage the Saudis or others to give it weapons.) With luck, this provisional government can be a first step toward stabilizing Libya’s post-Qaddafi future. Our first interest in Libya is seeing Qaddafi gone; our second is preventing its immediate collapse into a failed state.
Unfortunately, the dictator’s legacy will almost certainly live on in Libya’s struggles, even if he’s deposed. He turned a country that has the resources to be a North African version of a successful Gulf state into a miserable basket case. We wish swift success to the brave Libyans seeking an appropriate end to his regime.