Advancing a Free Society

In Libya, Half In

Thursday, April 28, 2011

There is a National Transitional Council in Benghazi – lawyers, businessmen, American-educated technocrats, a professor of economics from the University of Washington who returned home. The Council bodes well for the future, American officials say, it is “worthy of our support,” but we are not yet ready to recognize it. There is a huge imbalance in the treasure available to the Qaddafi regime and the paltry resources of the opposition: we could help rectify that imbalance by releasing to the Free Libyans frozen assets of well over $35 billion. The contest between the tyrant and the free forces would know a measure of equality. There would be no need for “boots on the ground,” we would bet on liberty, and give the new Libya a chance.

The Libyan upheaval, it should be recalled, erupted on February 17. The regime was caught in a storm, for a good fortnight it was unsure of its touch, and a determined international (read American-led) effort could have pushed it over the edge. But American policy drew back: we had two campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, we could not add a third campaign in the Islamic world. It was thus pitched, an all-or-nothing choice. President Obama managed to split the difference. We were in, but half in, we would lead but we would lead from behind. Time was given for the deranged ruler in his bunker. He had untold cash holdings inside Libya and in several African nations. He had leaky borders with Niger and Chad and Tunisia. He would hunker down, accept the de facto partition of his country, and outwait his opponents. The three pre-eminent Western leaders – the Presidents of the United States, France, and the British Prime Minister – declared openly their intention to drive Qaddafi out of office, but the means to push him out were not put into play. As Lyndon Johnson once famously put it, Don’t tell a man to go to hell unless you intend to see him there. We wish hell for Qaddafi, but have not found the will to dispatch him. In the interim, the special pleadings of the Russians and the Chinese and of African leaders beholden to Qaddafi have mounted. (And quietly in the shadows is the influence of the Turks, allies of Qaddafi, beneficiaries of the great business deals in Libya. Turkey uses its influence in NATO to frustrate the military campaign against Qaddafi.)

Now the Libya campaign is acknowledged to be a stalemate. And stalemates of this kind – if Iraq between 1991 and 2003 is any guide – favor the tyrants in bunkers. With oil and money – and mercenaries in Qaddafi’s case – the dictator can steady the course. He can bribe and bully, he can reward the faithful-and the frightened. The justice of a cause is not a sure guarantee of its success. Those decent people in Libya stand at history’s edge. Behind them is a vengeful ruler and the tyranny he created. Ahead of them lies the promise of a tolerable country. But it is folly to think that they can do it alone.

In recent days three scores of tribal federations in Libya announced their break with the regime, their eagerness for a political world beyond Qaddafi’s big prison. "Faced with the threats weighing on the unity of our country, faced with the maneuvers and propaganda of the dictator and his family, we solemnly declare: Nothing will divide us. We share the same ideal of a free, democratic and united Libya. The Libya of tomorrow, once the dictator has gone, will be a united Libya, with Tripoli as its capital and where we will at last be free to build a civil society according to our own wishes.” (The tribes were always held up as the bulwark of the regime.) As Joseph Conrad would have put it, this is “the East” but it is speaking to us in whole sentences of good English.

(photo credit: Munir Squires)