The situation in Libya is–how to say it?–a mess. The rebels capture a city only to retreat in disarray, often after mere hours. The humanitarian situation in conflict zones like the besieged coastal city of Misurata is dire and getting worse. With the rebel forces looking every bit the ragtag bunch they are, Great Britain announced today that it would be sending military advisers to eastern Libya to help build up the rebel army. Problem is, it’s not much of an army. For starters, it’s unclear who exactly is in command. General Khalifa Hifter, a former colonel in the Libyan army, says that he’s in charge. “I control everybody, the rebels and the regular army forces,” he told the New York Times yesterday. But the Transitional National Council, the ad hoc civilian government in the east, claims that General Fattah Younes, until recently Qadaffi’s interior minister, has command.
The Brits’ actions signal a doubling down on their commitment to see Qadaffi outed, a commitment shared, at least rhetorically, by the US. Since the start of the intervention, President Obama has walked a tightrope between pledging fidelity to the limited humanitarian goals authorized by the enabling UN resolution and reiterating his desire for regime change. Ideally, the former would have triggered the latter–allied intervention to halt Qadaffi’s murderous advance on Bengazhi would have shifted the momentum sufficiently to hand the rebels the upper hand and force the butcher of Tripoli from his Bedouin tent.
The disorganized rebels, however, proved unable to maintain that upper hand, and so the war has devolved into a bloody stalemate across Libya’s coastal frontier. If the goal of our intervention is saving lives, the status quo is unacceptable. In Misurata alone, upwards of 1,000 people might be dead.
It is tempting, in the midst of the continued destruction wrought by Qadaffi’s forces-which has included blatant violations of international law like the use of cluster bombs–to follow the Brits’ lead and tread deeper into the conflict–provide arms, send “advisers,” provide close air support. It would also be a profound mistake. As I argued in an earlier post, our aims in Libya must be strictly humanitarian. Anything else risks bogging us down in yet another war in the Middle East, fighting alongside and arming rebels whom we know almost nothing about, not to mention exceeding the mandate of the UN resolution by which President Obama justified our intervention.
The prudent next step is to do everything possible to support a ceasefire that upholds our initial commitment to the people of Libya: protecting them from the butchery of their government. Last week, the African Union presented a ceasefire plan to both Qadaffi and the rebels. Qadaffi accepted this “road map,” but the rebels rejected it outright, refusing to settle for anything short of the departure of Qadaffi, his sons and inner circle. The rebel national council chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil said, “We will not negotiate with the blood of our martyrs….We will die with them or be victorious.”
The rebels’ position is completely understandable. After coming so close to ousting the man who has brutally oppressed his people for over 40 years, the thought of acceding to his remaining in power must seem unthinkable. But their interests and our interests are two different things, and at this moment, the cold calculus of strategic self-interest must be paramount. We have lived up to our humanitarian obligations. We have averted the massacre of many thousands of people. Now, we need to acknowledge our limitations. A ceasefire that leaves Qadaffi or one of his sons in power would be deeply unpalatable. But unless we’re prepared to set regime change as our formal goal–superseding the legal authority granted by the UN–and commit to an open-ended conflict, it’s our best course of action.
Not just any ceasefire will do. It will have to offer protections for those in rebel-held territories to prevent against retribution. It will also have to include at least some kind of political reform that meets at least the most basic of the opposition’s demands. Qadaffi or those in his inner circle appear to recognize that some concessions are necessary, hence the back channel outreach to Britain in recent weeks.
Even so, a ceasefire presents its own share of problems. Qadaffi, as he’s done many times before, could renege, once again placing thousands of civilian lives at risk. In that event, we’d have to re-intervene, setting this entire cycle in motion once again. In addition, the rebels could reject the ceasefire and decide to fight to the death, with or without our support.
Ultimately, though, Libya’s future will, and should be, determined by the Libyan people themselves. In this, we can draw some comfort from the successful revolutions next door in Egypt and Tunisia as well as the eventual overthrow of Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic after NATO intervention succeeded in ending his genocidal campaign in Kosovo without removing him from power. It’s an untidy and uncertain outcome to be sure, but, all things considered, the only one that simultaneously adheres to our values and interests. And the sooner the better.