Thursday, February 24, 2011

On the Line With Libya



The New York Times

February 23, 2011

On the Line With Libya



By telephone, I reached a family in Tripoli, Libya, with deep roots in the armed forces there, and members of the family offered some insight into what we should do to help nudge Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power.

One member of the family is a senior naval officer who says that his ship and two others were ordered to sail to the major city of Benghazi, which has been liberated by rebels. The boats were instructed to attack Benghazi, he said, speaking through an English-speaking family member.

Some of the senior officers were aghast at the idea of attacking civilians but feared summary execution if they disobeyed orders, by his account. In that tense situation, the officer said, four officials supporting Colonel Qaddafi staged a rally for him on the naval base. Other officers then hushed them up without explicitly condemning the government, my contact said, and there was a fierce argument that ended with the pro-Qaddafi group giving way because it was far outnumbered by the anti-Qaddafi forces.

There has been no mutiny, and in theory the naval officers accepted their orders, my contact said. But in practice they have not yet set sail. I can’t say more for fear of getting some very brave people in trouble.

Likewise, in another phone call to Tripoli, I was given firsthand information about an air force unit in the Tripoli area that is staying on base and refraining from getting involved in the fighting one way or the other. The unit’s leaders don’t dare disobey orders directly, but they are waiting and watching and sitting out the fighting for now.

Those are the people we need to send signals to: Libyan military officers who are wavering about which way to turn their guns.

We shouldn’t invade Libya, but there are steps the international community can take that may make a difference by influencing these officers who haven’t yet committed. Senator John Kerry, the Genocide Intervention Network, the International Crisis Group and others have laid out sensible steps that countries can take. These include:

Offer a safe haven for Libyan pilots ordered to bomb their country. For example, they could be encouraged to land on airstrips in Malta or neighboring countries. Even if not many took advantage of the offer, Colonel Qaddafi might be more reluctant to dispatch his air force if he thought he might lose it.

Impose financial and trade sanctions on Libya, as President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has suggested, and freeze assets of the Qaddafi family. In particular, military exchanges and weapons transfers should be canceled. Sanctions take time to bite (aside from a cutoff from the global banking system), but they would signal to those around Colonel Qaddafi that he is going down and they should not obey his orders.

Impose a no-fly zone, as Libya’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations proposed after he defected, to prevent the government from bombing or strafing its own people. This is what we did to prevent Saddam Hussein from attacking his Kurdish population, and in Libya we could do it without dispatching NATO aircraft to hover continually over the region. We can warn Libya (publicly or quietly) that if military aircraft or ships are used against civilians, Libya’s military assets will later be destroyed. The aim is to encourage the air force and navy to keep their assets from being used against civilians.

Encourage the Arab League and African Union to continue to pressure Libya in connection with the killing of its people. Such efforts undermine Colonel Qaddafi’s nationalist warnings that this is about foreign powers trying to re-colonize Libya and encourage his aides to appreciate that he is losing all his allies.

Seek a referral by the United Nations Security Council to the International Criminal Court for the prosecution of Colonel Qaddafi for crimes against humanity.

Skeptics will note that none of these moves would convince Colonel Qaddafi to be any more genteel. And these are uncertain levers, creating some risk that he would respond by going after citizens of the United States. But there are two reasons why I think it’s very important to pull these levers.

The first is that so many Libyans have defected or seem to be wavering. That military family in Tripoli estimates that only 10 percent of those in the Libyan armed forces are behind Colonel Qaddafi — and the rest are wondering what to do next.

The second is that as this democracy uprising spreads, other despots may be encouraged to follow Colonel Qaddafi’s example. We need to make very sure that the international reaction is so strong — and the scorched-earth strategy so unsuccessful — that no other despot is tempted to declare war on his own people.

So let’s not sit on our hands.

I invite you to visit my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me while I am in Cairo on Twitter.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


No comments: