Just when the world thought that the two long wars which have come to define the first decade of the 21st century were coming to an end, the international community is confronted with yet another apparently open-ended conflict. As the smoke begins to clear in Iraq, and the smoldering ruins of Afghanistan are grudgingly smothered, a new war zone has emerged in the wake of a volatile wave of anti-government protests sweeping through the Mediterranean region: the Arab Spring. Everywhere, you hear of dictators shooting unarmed protesters as they desperately cling to power. Yet, do all of these acts predicate international intervention? And, if not, what is different about Libya?
The major nations involved with the international coalition in Libya, operating under the auspices of a recently issued United Nations Security Council mandate, have a long, checkered past in the country. Only a century ago, the rebel forces of Omar Mukhtar were rebelling against Italy, which had invaded the country to encourage secession from the Ottoman Empire. Benghazi was its rebel stronghold as it is today. Colonel Gadhafi has been known to wear a picture of Omar Mukhtar, who was eventually captured and hung by Benito Mussolini’s forces, at official diplomatic functions as a reminder of the country’s historical struggle against Western imperialism. When Gadhafi himself came into power after staging a coup against the ruling monarch of the sovereign Kingdom of Libya, British and American military bases inside Libya were abandoned. In commemoration of the departure of the British, Gadhafi christened the day, March 28th, British Evacuation Day—a watershed moment in Libya’s history. This year, British Evacuation Day takes on a whole new meaning as bombs rain down on the countryside, some of them from British warplanes. In response, Gadhafi has issued a resounding call to resist, at all cost, the “crusading colonialists.” He certainly appears willing to endure a long, drawn out siege of Tripoli. In perfect honesty, what does he have to lose? He will be charged as a war criminal whether he steps down or stays.
He does have a point. What exactly is our goal in Libya anyway? To remove Gadhafi? To bring democracy to every corner of the world? President Obama recently tried to clarify our mission, but critics on both sides are lambasting his decision to enter the conflict, or at least, the manner in which he is handling the issue. It’s not hard to see why.
The coalition objective, which was authorized by the United Nations when they imposed a no-fly zone, explicitly states our role as protecting civilians. Yet, coalition commanders have twisted this definition to justify airstrikes on a number of strategic military targets. This has provoked a strong response from some members of the international community, including Russia, who decry that members of the international community have effectively taken the side of the rebels and thereby overstepped their United Nations mandate. For the rebels, coalition airstrikes have given them the edge, allowing them to advance from the strongholds along the coast and spread outward throughout the country. But even our own military commanders warn that they are still vastly overmatched, and government forces could quickly take back areas rebels are currently occupying. They point out that while the rebels appear to be on an unchecked march to the capital, government forces are clearly making a strategic retreat to heavily-populated urban centers where coalition airpower is limited due to the fear of killing civilians.
As the rebels’ advance is subdued by heavily dug in troops in and around Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown, the coalition is undoubtedly asking itself what will be its next step. The reality is that the world, much less the United States, cannot afford, from either a fiscal or moral standpoint, to embroil itself in another open-ended conflict, another noble, yet misguided odyssey to bring about democracy to a non-Western country at the end of the barrel of a gun. Perhaps for this reason, the coalition has changed the name from Operation Odyssey Dawn to Operation Unified Protector. That is the goal in Libya: to prevent a humanitarian disaster, not to impose regime-change. It would be wise for Western powers to step back and look at the situation objectively and not forget that the North Atlantic Treaty mission to protect civilians does not rule out the possibility of an attack on the rebels if they were to go on the offensive and strike cities with civilian populations. This is the critical distinction. We are on the side of civilians, and not on the side of the rebels. And though the stated goal of the Obama Administration is the removal of Gadhafi, like he emphasized in his recent address to the nation, the dictator’s removal must be at the hands of the Libyan people. Only they have the right to realize their destiny. Only they have the ability to draw the borders of their new geography.