From the spokesman for the new provisional Libyan government formed in Benghazi to the resistance fighter holed up in her apartment in Tripoli, the message from anti-Qaddafi Libyans to the West—and the United States in particular—is uniform: Help us!
Qaddafi is not Hosni Mubarak. The Libyan forces arrayed against the insurgency, unlike the Egyptian army, will show no restraint. This will be, indeed has already become, a bloody fight to the finish involving mercenaries and soldiers whose loyalty to the Qaddafi family is based on money and brute force.
Saif Qaddafi predicted “rivers of blood,” and we are now seeing them flowing from the streets of Tripoli to Libya’s other key coastal cities.
Yet the White House has offered little but antiseptic words, followed up by nothing meaningful.
However, the spectrum of options—both multilateral and unilateral—is quite broad, ranging from the creation and enforcement of a no-fly zone, to targeted attacks to take out what little remains of the Qaddafi air force, to covert efforts to keep the Qaddafi air force on the ground, to the provision of communication infrastructure to the resistance, to the provision of armaments so that they can fight on an equal footing.
Not only would our actual assistance be of great actual help, but the emotional impact of our intervention could sway many who remain with Qaddafi and bring them over to the side of the resistance.
The voices of those who fear our violating the powerful notion of sovereignty and running roughshod over the principle that civil wars are not appropriate opportunities for foreign intervention should not be easily discounted. But there are now several important and compelling responses:
First: the establishment of a new provisional government that has asked for our assistance and recognition gives us a legal footing for participation. This is not a false government manufactured by outsiders to create the facade of a legal basis for intervention. Just the opposite: It is an organic, representative government that has members chosen from liberated regions throughout entire country. The leadership includes the most prominent members of a society, including jurists and former senior members of the Qaddafi government. Recognizing them as we could and then providing the assistance they seek would fully comport with international law.
Second: Qaddafi’s actions have been so inhumane and ruthless that he can be viewed an international criminal, and his crimes so great that we could justly intervene on humanitarian grounds. Waging war against the citizens of one’s own country—innocent civilians in particular—is still grounds for international intervention.
Third: We must use our influence with the newly formed government in Egypt and with the Egyptian military in particular to urge them to sanction support for the Libyan revolution through a message from the Arab League. Though this would run contrary to the role that the Arab League has been traditionally willing to play, it is the moment for the new leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, and even the old regimes in Saudi Arabia and Jordan to show that they do, in fact, represent a change. Their support for the removal of Qaddafi would be a powerful statement that they understand the new Middle East.
President Obama has been a step too late and two steps too cautious. If Qaddafi manages to hold on, it will be right to ask, “Who lost Libya?” The president should recognize the provisional government, send needed support to the revolutionary forces, and firmly plant the United States on the side of democracy and freedom. Let’s not forget that Qaddafi is a terrorist, a repressive autocrat who has tortured and killed his own citizens. And let’s also not forget that the victory of the revolutions now sweeping the Middle East would be the most important defeat for al-Qaida in history, a triumph of secular, democratic views over Islamist terror.
This new model of government could supplant the narrow and historically backward argument being made by the Taliban, al-Qaida, and Iran. If the revolutions succeed, we will have seen a victory that we have been failing to accomplish in Afghanistan and Iraq. We will have won the hearts and souls of the next generation—not by waging an unwinnable military battle in the hills and mountains of Afghanistan against an evanescent enemy but by letting brave Arabs conclude that what we believe in and stand for is a better model than what they have had, or than what al-Qaida offers.
Now all we have to do is help them win.