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The Libyan Dilemma

 22 March 2011

By Yisarel Ne'eman

The West has its hands full in the Middle East for decades and now even more so. After two decades in Iraq in one form or another and a decade in Afghanistan the Libyan crisis is drawing Western attention and military intervention. The Egyptian and Tunisian regimes were overthrown and the West shifted from supporting the previous secular dictatorial administrations to encouraging the protesters and hoped for steps towards democracy. And then came Libya. Interestingly, as much as Col. Qaddafi is a brutal dictator, the rebels in Benghazi and the east did not receive automatic support for their revolt. No one can be sure they truly advocate democracy, or whether this is more of a regional rebellion against the pro-Qaddafi forces emanating from Tripoli and its environs.

Most logically when Qaddafi was on the defensive and his days appeared numbered the West hesitated to intervene. Morally the Libyan leader was an uncomfortable economic ally necessary for a constant oil supply and one who was willing to halt the illegal flow of African immigrants into southern Europe. But when the revolt became a civil war, Qaddafi and his Tripoli allies understood they are in a zero sum game, announcing quite honestly their every intention of slaughtering all opposition. Nothing like an honest murderer and his henchmen when pushed to the wall (remember the forced admission over the Lockerbie bombing?). Led by France, the US, Canada, Britain and other European allies are imposing a no-fly zone and aerial-naval bombardment of Libya's air/coastal defense systems and armored forces. It is said Arab states will also be involved but no one is sure which ones since most are in some form of turmoil. At the moment no ground invasion is being contemplated, or so is said.

(The above is from AlJazeera's English satellite station over the last few weeks.)

What is missing are Allied/Arab objectives in what is being packaged as a war of liberation for human rights and democracy. Western leaders speak of halting the slaughter and Pres. Obama is in full concurrence. If so what of Bahrain and Yemen in particular? The Saudis and United Arab Emirates have all but invaded Bahrain and are brutally putting down the Shiite uprising, whether it be pro-democracy, pro-Iranian, both or neither, but whatever the protesters advocate they are unarmed. In Yemen government loyalists constantly fire on demonstrators. But in both of these cases Saudi and oil interests are at stake, and this is not just a Western issue but one involving Japan, China and India as well. If we do the calculations at least half the world needs a very stable oil market, especially in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula.

Libya has oil but only holds a few percentages of the world market. Western response was predicated on regime stability, as long as he firmly held the reigns of power most wanted to keep it that way, once his country descended into anarchy/civil war he was no longer an asset, even should he emerge the ultimate victor. For Qaddafi, western Libya (Tripoli) and his tribal alliance to win means long time instability. But will it be any different should the Benghazi rebels win with NATO assistance? A long time rebellion by pro-Qaddafi forces will be just as destabilizing.

Iraq is a good comparison. Without going into the disagreements over the reasons for the Anglo-American offensive Saddam Hussein was ousted eight years ago and that country still suffers from Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish conflicts, suicide homicide bombings, endemic corruption and now a civil revolt by its population. Saddam was a brutal mass murderer (killing 100,000s of Shiites and 10,000s Kurds) who the Western/Arab alliance battled first in 1991 after his invasion of Kuwait. During, between and in the aftermath of both conflicts Saddam for all his murderous behavior was and is still hailed by many in the Arab world as a Salah a-Din type halting the Western Crusader invasion. Let us not forget the Shiite-Kurdish satisfaction with Saddam's final overthrow in 2003 and the fact that the Arab world did not send combat troops as they had done twelve years earlier. Even Saudi assistance was with great trepidation.

Pres. Obama is not George W. Bush, he is very reluctant to press a Western/American agenda using military force or so it is believed. But what is the "agenda"? The agenda is much more oil and national security (Obama's continued initiative in Afghanistan) than it ever was human rights – remember the Guantanamo prison closure? The Obama Administration did not take the lead in curtailing Qaddafi & Co., the Europeans did, in particular the French, the same French who condemned the most recent American venture in Iraq. The issue of human rights is the perfect cover for low cost Western air and missile intervention in Libya. But can the West enforce its will, remove Qaddafi and find a comfortable business partner who allows at least a semblance of human rights?

Other questions abound. To capture Tripoli and its environs the West must deploy ground forces. Will the West try to kill Qaddafi and his power elite as they circulate among civilian populations – using them as human shields? Or will this be considered an international criminal offense should civilians be killed or injured? Former UN Sec. Gen. Kofi Anan condemned such actions as "extra judicial killings" and even though he got the definition wrong many agreed with him especially when Israel took out terrorist masterminds in such a manner. Should civilians surrounding anti-aircraft batteries or standing on bridges targeted by the Western air forces be attacked? Put succinctly, will Qaddafi's human shields protect the dictator himself? And in the end will there be anti-war demos in the West with Obama, Sarkozy and Cameroon highlighted as war criminals?

China, Brazil, Venezuela and especially Russia have announced their reservations or opposition to the Western initiative. Their condemnations will become more powerful once the operation is concluded. An anti-Western backlash can be expected. In the immediate future there will be many to praise the operation but similar to Iraq, Western intervention to remove an Arab/Muslim leader, no matter how brutal, will be remembered as unwarranted "Crusader intervention" in the Islamic domain. A radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood style backlash cannot be ruled out.

The best option would be not to land ground forces and for the West to get over its nation state obsession. Libya is not truly one state, it is a conglomeration of the eastern Cyrene-Benghazi region, the western Tripoli area and tribal confederations to the south. Allowing for a split in Libya may be the least of all evils and it certainly will avoid more bloodshed while pre-empting a Western ground assault. Should the people desire a democracy in the Cyrene Benghazi area then the West can step in and help nurture the process, but the people must decide. As for the Tripoli region and the million or more pro-Qaddafi supporters it would be a disaster to bomb them into submission. According to news reports and even the pro-rebel AlJazeera Arab world satellite station (in English) most of western Libya prefers Qaddafi's regime. This does not prevent a later uprising on his own turf, one the international community should support when the time and conditions are ripe. It is very enticing to destroy Qaddafi in one shot, but caution and a two step process will limit damage and in the end not present the West and democracy as an enemy of the Arabs.

Making democratic inroads into the Arab/Muslim world is tricky business. The West should be careful not to overstep its bounds and suffer a backlash destroying any forward progress and possibly even reversing advancements already made.