There's no doubt that the people of eastern Libya needed saving. Even as heavily-armed pro-regime forces were massing at the entrance to Benghazi, Col. Qaddafi was threatening to murder anyone who was against him. He warned that his forces would go house to house. No one had any reason to believe he was bluffing after his chilling threat to stay in power to the last drop of every man, woman and child's blood.
His brutality was well known. During the 1980s, he financed and armed terrorist organizations worldwide and in 1996, he ordered the massacre of 1,270 prisoners in Tripoli's Abu Salim prison which the West studiously ignored for fear of damaging oil interests. In recent weeks, independent foreign journalists have been shown his torture chambers and underground dungeons where the disappeared were kept for decades. One wretched man who had virtually been buried alive under the earth for 20 years emerged with a beard as long as Methuselah's.
His regime's utter cruelty was displayed for all to see when a distraught young Libyan woman from Benghazi alleging she had been beaten and raped by Qaddafi militia burst into a hotel housing foreign reporters in Tripoli a few days ago. The reaction of the journalists' minders was illuminating. To keep her from talking, they manhandled her, pulled her hair, put their hands over her mouth, threw members of the media attempting to protect her to the floor and smashed some cameras. One knife-wielding female “hotel worker” actually sat upon the woman.
A gun was pulled on the Sky New crews and the woman bundled against her will into a car. The façade of the normally affable minders well-schooled in PR was shattered. Instead of empathizing with the woman, they tried to damage her reputation, initially saying she was drunk and later characterizing her as a loose woman. The information minister now says she's at home, her alleged assailants have been taken into custody and the chief prosecutor is pursuing her case. But everyone knows that without the scrutiny of media eyes that woman's fate would have hung in the balance.
If France and Britain hadn't acted as speedily as they did following the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 by bombing Qaddafi's tanks and hardware, there would have been a bloodbath in Benghazi and other eastern towns. And for that Western powers would have been blamed just as they were for doing nothing to prevent millions in the Congo and Rwanda from being slaughtered and doing nothing to stop the Srebrenica genocide in 1995.
The UN Resolution 1973 designed to protect Libyan civilians from their crazed leader's bloody retribution with a “no-fly zone” was ethically right. That said, what resulted is morally murky. The question is where does "protection" end and "aggression" begin?
What happens when the disorganized and leaderless rebel forces take on Qaddafi's hometown and loyal stronghold Sirte which they are attempting to subdue as I write? In that town, most inhabitants are believed to be staunch Qaddafi supporters. Many are from his tribe. In this instance, Qaddafi's brigades there believed to be 20,000 strong are there to protect the inhabitants from rebels. As soon as one NATO bomb drops on Sirte it could be argued that the international coalition is over-reaching its UN mandate by taking sides in a civil war. Indeed, if they were to abide strictly by their authorized remit they should have to bomb the Benghazi-based fighters.
The problem is that Resolution 1973 doesn't allow for the stated goals of the US, France and Britain to be implemented. They want regime-change which under international law isn't a cassus belli for military intervention. They want Col. Qaddafi gone to ensure that Libya isn't split down the middle or becomes a rogue state. Most important from their perspective is to render Qaddafi toothless so that he is unable to empower terrorist groups to wreak his revenge upon coalition capitals, cruise lines and civilian aircraft. Moreover, they've no time to lose.
President Barack Obama and President Nicola Sarkozy don't want a long drawn-out and expensive military mission when both are seeking re-election. Republican and Democratic knives are already out for Obama because he failed to get congressional approval for US participation in no-fly, no-drive zones in a far-flung land that doesn't fall within the purview of American interests. Or, conversely, because he has maintained a low-profile during the conflict instead of proudly putting US muscle on display as so-called leader of the free world.
The longer this goes on, the more Britain's David Cameron will have to defend his decision as a population experiencing vicious job and welfare cuts will soon lose patience as they witness millions if not billions flowing out of Treasury coffers for what some will believe is none of their business. For Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron failure isn't an option. Each one is aware there's a fine line between hero and zero.
The left is already screaming double standards asking why Washington was so quick to defend Libyan civilians when it cheered on Israel's slaughter of 1,400 Lebanese civilians and 1,200 Gazans. This is a question that Abdul Bari Atwan, the editor of the Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi is rightfully asking. Others are claiming that the West's interest in Libya is purely based on oil noting that there are several other regimes in the Middle East region using excessive force to battle popular uprisings that have been handed carte blanche to sort out their own problems. Yet others are saying the West has learned nothing from US-led failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For what it's worth, my own opinion is this. On Libya, the international community made the right decision for the right reasons. Oil is not a factor when Qaddafi was already supplying Europe with oil and gas and British and French oil giants were in the country. Furthermore, the allies have no intention of occupying Libya. This is not part of some nefarious neoconservative agenda.
The hope is that Qaddafi departs peacefully allowing a free and democratic Libya to join the 21st century. It's just sad that the Arab world hasn't taken a bigger role to effect change on its own doorstep. This was a missed opportunity for Arabs to prove to themselves and the West that “we're in charge of the neighborhood”. I can only pray that when all this is over the Libyan people will be better off than they were before when, at the very least, it can be said that the end justified the means.
*Published in the Saudi-based ARAB NEWS on March 28, 2011