Better late than never, the United States and her allies finally have acted to stop the slaughter in Libya. With strong American, British, and French support, the United Nations Security Council on March 17 approved a Lebanon-sponsored resolution authorizing member states to use “all necessary measures... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” in Libya.
Only hours before, Muammar Qaddafi had been issuing blood-curdling threats, promising to go “house by house, room by room” and vowing “we will have no mercy and no pity on them.” Yet as soon as the U.N. resolution passed, Qaddafi's foreign minister announced an immediate cease-fire—although there were reports that offensive operations were still continuing.
Qaddafi may be a “mad dog” (as Ronald Reagan called him), but he is also shrewd and ruthless enough to have held on to power for 41 years. His ruthless streak has been on ample display in recent weeks as his armed forces have been on a rampage through rebel-held towns. Now we are seeing his pragmatic streak—the same instinct he displayed in 2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when he suddenly decided to give up his weapons of mass destruction program and support of terrorism. Presumably Qaddafi realizes that overwhelming military forces are marshaling against him and that his best bet is not to provoke the American-led coalition.
But while the cease-fire, if real, is good news—it gives breathing room to the rebels in Benghazi, Libya's second city, which Qaddafi had been on the verge of assaulting—it should not lead to complacency on the part of the West and our Arab allies. We cannot be content with the current stalemate, with Qaddafi holding Tripoli and most other cities while the rebels are ensconced in Benghazi and Tobruk in the east. We do not want to divide Libya indefinitely (unless its people vote to do so). Most of all, we do not want to get into a situation like that in Iraq between 1991 and 2003, when the United States had to devote considerable resources to maintaining a no-fly zone.
The longer Qaddafi stays in power, the more suffering he can inflict on the people under his control, and the more mischief he can inflict on other countries—including the United States. He has already threatened to retaliate against “all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea.” That is no idle threat, given that in the past he has been responsible for numerous acts of terrorism, including the midair bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988.
The only way this crisis will end—the only way we and our allies can achieve our objectives in Libya—is to remove Qaddafi from power. Containment won't suffice. We must make “rollback” the international strategy.
Such a goal is not compelled, but is permitted, under U.N. Security Council resolution 1973. That resolution “stresses the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people” and which leads to “a peaceful and sustainable solution.” The Obama administration should argue that the only “peaceful and sustainable solution” would be for Qaddafi to abdicate power—as the president has already demanded (a demand he pointedly did not reiterate yesterday though he did say Qaddafi has lost “the legitimacy to lead”).
Now we need to muster the will and the resources to oust the dictator. Resolution 1973 gives authority for a wide variety of actions. The only step which is explicitly excluded is “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory,” although it is not impossible to imagine a future U.N. resolution authorizing the dispatch of an international peacekeeping force to help Libya make the transition from Qaddafi's heinous rule. The immediate need is for the U.S., British, and French armed forces—along with, we hope, Arab allies—to unleash a devastating fusillade from the air and the sea to cripple Qaddafi's ability to threaten Libyan civilians. We should target not only his military forces but also their command and control infrastructure—including Qaddafi himself. The Libyan state is a one-man operation. Eliminate that man and the whole edifice may come tumbling down.
We should also dispatch special forces and CIA operatives to meet with the resistance and assess their needs. There is an obvious need for outside specialists to help train the rebels and to coordinate any offensive they undertake with allied forces. We saw in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 how devastating an indigenous force can be when backed by precision American airpower directed by tactical air controllers on the ground. A similar combination should work as well in Libya's deserts as it did in Afghanistan's mountains—especially considering the fact that Qaddafi has significantly fewer supporters than the Taliban had. Few if any Libyans have been converted to the loopy gospel of Qaddafi's “Green Book.” The bulk of his forces are mercenaries. It is doubtful that they will fight to the death. Many will desert once they see they are backing a losing cause.
We don't want to discount the difficulties of toppling Qaddafi. Like any other military operation, it will be filled with risks, costs, and hardships. In many ways, however, the harder issue will be cobbling together a post-Qaddafi government. The Transitional Council, under the leadership of Qaddafi's former justice minister, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, has made a good start in Benghazi. Behind the scenes, we and our allies should be working to build the most durable and democratic regime possible—while assuring Qaddafi's allies, especially in the army, that they will be welcome in the new Libya. A good start would be to recognize the Transitional Council as Libya's lawful government, as France already has done.
The passage of U.N. Security Council resolution 1973 is a step in the right direction. But it is only the beginning—not the end. Much dangerous and difficult work remains to be done to create a decent post-Qaddafi state where (in the words of the U.N. resolution) civilians will not have to fear “attacks” and “abuses.”
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.