Monday, March 28, 2011

What have we accomplished in Libya?

Much more than we're able to see, argues Tom Malinowski in The New Republic:

In Libya, many people (we don’t yet know how many) were arrested, forcibly disappeared and possibly executed as the Qaddafi government consolidated its control over Tripoli and rebel-held enclaves, like Zawiyah, in the country’s west. But the Obama administration and its international allies did act soon enough to prevent the much larger-scale atrocities that would likely have followed Qaddafi’s reconquest of eastern Libya and especially the city of Benghazi. Indeed, though this intervention must have felt painfully slow to the people of Benghazi as Qaddafi’s army bore down upon them, it was, by any objective standard, the most rapid multinational military response to an impending human rights crisis in history, with broader international support than any of the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s.

But precisely because the international community acted in time—before Qaddafi retook Benghazi—we never saw what might have happened had they not acted. Today in eastern Libya, there are no columns of refugees marching home to reclaim their lives; no mass graves testifying to the gravity of the crisis; no moment that symbolizes a passing from horror to hope. The sacking of Benghazi was the proverbial dog that didn’t bark. And so, just days into the military operation, commentators have moved on to a new set of questions—some serious (Is the mission to protect civilians or to remove Qaddafi? Will NATO be stuck patrolling a divided country?), and some trivial (Should Obama have gone to Brazil when the bombing started? Did the interventionist “girls” in his administration out-argue the cautious boys?)

But before the debate moves on, as it must, we should acknowledge what could be happening in eastern Libya right now had Qaddafi’s forces continued their march. The dozens of burned out tanks, rocket launchers, and missiles bombed at the eleventh hour on the road to Benghazi would have devastated the rebel stronghold if Qaddafi’s forces had been able to unleash them indiscriminately, as they did in other, smaller rebel-held towns, like Zawiyah, Misrata, and Adjabiya. Qaddafi’s long track-record of arresting, torturing, disappearing, and killing his political opponents to maintain control suggests that had he recaptured the east, a similar fate would have awaited those who supported the opposition there. Over a hundred thousand Libyans already fled to Egypt fearing Qaddafi’s assault; hundreds of thousands more could have followed if the east had fallen. The remaining population, and those living in refugee camps abroad, would have felt betrayed by the West, which groups like Al Qaeda would undoubtedly have tried to exploit. Finally, Qaddafi’s victory—alongside Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s fall—would have signaled to other authoritarian governments from Syria to Saudi Arabia to China that if you negotiate with protesters you lose, but if you kill them you win.

And the United States would still have been embroiled in Libya—enforcing sanctions, evacuating opposition supporters, assisting refugees, dealing with an unpredictable and angry Qaddafi. But it would have been embroiled in a tragedy rather than a situation that now has a chance to end well.