Time Is Running Out for Intervention in Libya

Libya protestWhile Muammar Gaddafi is crushing the opposition, Western powers are wasting precious time debating the wisdom of military intervention. Gaddafi will not relinquish power. He is determined to either kill for power or to be killed. As long as Gaddafi has the means to provide guns and money, foreign mercenaries and allies of his tribe will continue to fight for him. Given that the rebels are outnumbered and outgunned, Gaddafi will gain the upper hand, unless the international community stops talking and starts acting.

Even though Western leaders have chosen sides already by condemning human rights violations and calling on Gaddafi to step down, they remain mired in a lopsided cost-benefit analysis. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has expressed his fear of drawing the United States into another costly war in the Middle East. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton has cited concerns over the lack of a legal basis for military intervention and the possibility of civilian casualties. Such reluctance is both misguided and dangerous.

For all their rhetoric about supporting human rights, Western countries lose credibility as human rights defenders and champions of freedom through their hesitation to act. In addition, the cost of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya today would be far lower than the price Libyans and the international community would have to pay down the road. As policymakers contemplate whether to intervene or not, it is worth remembering the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein in response to the uprising of March 1991. Saddam unleashed a wave of terror to consolidate his power and regain control over the cities. No home, school, or hospital was safe from the reach of Saddam’s killing machine. Gaddafi will not hesitate to institutionalize a similar state of terror against the people of Benghazi and other rebel cities. The moral indignation and political cost of allowing genocide to take place would be a backbreaking burden for the west.

If Gaddafi remained in power, the Western dilemma would not end. The West would be left with a hostile regime that has a demonstrated proclivity for terrorism and stirring up troubles in Africa. Antagonistic relations with Libya would mean that southern European countries could no longer rely on Libyan oil and gas. Moreover, Gaddafi would likely stop cooperation on illegal migration to Europe.

Defeating Gaddafi must be done by Libyans, not the West. The Libyan opposition has demonstrated great courage and ability to win. However, the opposition is fighting an asymmetric war. The significant advantage of Gaddafi’s forces over the opposition is the air force. By launching aerial strikes Gaddafi’s forces were able to retake control of the towns Ras Lanuf and Brega. After pushing the rebels out of Ajdabiya, Gaddafi’s forces are moving to overrun the seat of the opposition in Benghazi. With the opposition dead, Libya is sure to turn into something like Saddam’s Iraq. The cost of a western intervention in a post-war Libya will be much higher, requiring not just a no-fly zone but also troops on the ground.

If Western powers want to minimize their intervention, they must intervene now, before the heart of the opposition stops beating. A no-fly zone backed by sanctions on Libyan oil and gas will undercut Gaddafi’s military capabilities and his financial means to keep mercenaries on the payroll and maintain the allegiance of his tribe. This is the least the Western powers can do to boost their human rights credentials and for Libyans to have the opportunity to fight for their freedom.

Islam Qasem is a strategic analyst at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.