Yet despite his statements, Obama and other members of his administration have expressed an extreme reluctance to follow through with various moves to support the Libyan rebels, starting with official US recognition of their government, supplying it with badly needed military as well as humanitarian aid, and responding to the request by the rebels for the imposition of a no-fly zone to neutralize the great military advantage enjoyed by Gaddafi’s forces, his helicopter gunships and jet planes.
Initial hopes that Gaddafi’s forces would quickly desert him or crumble in the face of the popular revolt failed to materialize. Over the past week, those forces, some of them under the direction of Gaddafi’s sons, have rallied to halt a march by a rebel column from its strongholds in the east toward the capital of Tripoli, which remains firmly in Gaddafi’s hands. The pro-Gaddafi forces, with air support, have launched powerful attacks on cities near Tripoli which fell to the rebel forces during the early days of the revolt, and which are now under siege.
It has become clear that without forceful outside intervention, the Libyan revolt will likely become a bloody and extended civil war by a ruthless and well-armed force under the control of a madman against badly outgunned and poorly organized rebels and civilians fighting for their freedom after suffering under the madman’s tyrannical rule for more than four decades.
WHAT ABOUT THE JUDGEMENT OF HISTORY?
Unless Obama summons the will to act quickly, he may be held indirectly responsible by history for permitting Gaddafi to commit great crimes against humanity. The slaughter of civilians and opposition members in Libya may eventually rank with the greatest massacres of our times. These include Saddam Hussein’s attacks on the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq in 1991, the ethnic cleansing campaign conducted by the Bosnian Serb army between 1992 and 1995 against the Muslim population of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the 1994 mass murder in Rwanda of 800,000 members of the Tutsi tribe by rival Hutu militias, and the campaign of mass murder by the communist government of Cambodia, known as the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, which was responsible for the deaths of at least 1.4 million people, half through execution, and the other half through deliberate starvation and disease, between 1975-1979.
Yet Obama and other members of his administration are more concerned by the tactical and political risks of American intervention in Libya than the need to stop the crimes against humanity committed by Gaddafi’s forces which have already been documented and which threaten to become a case of mass murder.
Obama and his Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, seem to be obsessed by the fear of entangling the US in the Libyan revolt. They worry that the US would be seen as meddling once again in the Middle East, repeating what they claim were the mistakes of President George Bush in ordering the invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
SOME GOOD REVOLUTIONS NEED OUTSIDE HELP
One White House aide describes Obama as constantly reminding his advisors that, “the best revolutions are completely organic.” That may be true, but in some cases, outside help is often needed for legitimate revolutions to emerge victorious over tyranny. The prime example of that was the decisive French intervention on the side of George Washington’s colonial army at the battle of Yorktown in 1781, which made possible the victory of the 13 colonies in the US war for independence from England.
Outspoken voices from both parties in Congress are urging Obama to respond in kind to support the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people, and are increasingly critical of the administration’s dithering and excuses for failing to act in the face of what has already become a major tragedy and crime against human rights being perpetrated by Gaddafi on his own people.
Critics point out the crucial differences between the US interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and what is being asked of it by the Libyan rebels today. The Libyans have made it clear that they do not want any US troops on the ground. The rebels say they are confident that once Gaddafi’s air power has been neutralized by the no-fly zone, they can fight and defeat Gaddafi’s ground forces.
PRECEDENT IN IRAQ
Furthermore, there is ample historical precedent for just such an intervention. Following Saddam Hussein’s 1991 massacre of the marsh Arabs in southern Iraq, the US and Great Britain imposed a no-fly zone on northern Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from using his army’s helicopters to massacre the Iraqi Kurds who rebelled against his rule.
At that time, the first Bush and Clinton administrations enforced the no-fly zone as a moral responsibility, since in the immediate aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War, the US had encouraged the marsh Arabs in southern Iraq and the Kurds in the north to rebel against Saddam Hussein’s rule. They proceeded to do so, in the expectation that the US would defend them against Saddam’s inevitable retaliation. The disappointment by Iraqis seeking freedom with the US, due to its failure at that time to protect the marsh Arabs, became an impediment to US efforts to win the trust of the Iraqi population following the 2003 invasion.
McCAIN, LIEBERMAN AND KERRY SPEAK OUT
Bipartisan criticism of the Obama administration’s timid response so far to the rebellion in Libya has been voiced by Senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman and John Kerry, who span the political spectrum in Washington today. They seek to shame the Obama administration into action to prevent a repeat of the mistakes made by previous administrations in failing to act in time to prevent the slaughter of innocents in Iraq, Rwanda and Bosnia.
Perhaps the most influential voice calling for a decisive intervention by the Obama administration in Libya is that of Senator John Kerry, who first came to public attention 40 years ago for publicly exposing the brutality he saw while fighting in Vietnam, and who, more than 30 years later, ran for president based upon his opposition to the war in Iraq.
Despite the fact that he has long been a leader of the liberal, anti-war Democrats, Kerry has been outspoken in calling for the US to use its military might to tip the scales in the Libyan civil war in favor of the rebels.
Kerry says that he is haunted “by the specter of Iraq 1991,” when former President George H.W. Bush “urged the Shia to rise up, and they did rise up, and tanks and planes were coming at them – and we were nowhere to be seen. [As a result,] tens of thousands were slaughtered,” Kerry said.
He also notes that President Bill Clinton, “missed the chance in Rwanda, and said later it was the greatest regret of his presidency, and then was too slow [to react] in Bosnia,” where eventually the United States conducted a bombing campaign to protect a defenseless Muslim civilian population from ethnic cleansing attacks and expulsion by Serbian soldiers.
That is why Kerry is urging the Obama administration to “crater” Libya’s airfields with American bombs so that Gaddafi’s planes cannot take off to attack rebel targets.
Kerry says that, in his capacity as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, he has been urging the administration to “prepare for all eventualities” and warned that Obama’s response so far, “showing reticence in a huge public way is not the best option,” to deal with the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Libya.
“You want to be prepared if he is bombing people, and killing his own people,” Kerry said, referring to Gaddafi. The Libyan people, he said, would “look defenseless and we would look feckless [incompetent and irresponsible] – you have to be ready.”
OBAMA REPEATING THE US MISTAKE IN HUNGARY
Another historical analogy to the situation in Libya today was the public call by the Eisenhower administration during the early years of the Cold War for the oppressed people behind the Iron Curtain to rise up against the Soviets who had occupied their countries and set up puppet communist governments. In 1956, spontaneous protests by university students and writers against communist rule in Hungary, very much like the demonstrations we are seeing in the Middle East today, broke out in Budapest, encouraged by calls for revolution on Hungarian language broadcasts by the US-sponsored Radio Free Europe. The protesters soon succeeded in overthrowing the communist prime minister of Hungary. He was replaced by Imre Nagy, who led a government with both communist and non-communist ministers, and called for democratic reforms.
The Soviet Union at first accepted the change, but then decided that the Hungarian revolution threatened its hold over the rest of Eastern Europe. The Soviet leaders in Moscow sent in the Red Army, leading to heroic but hopeless battles in the narrow streets of Budapest between student protesters armed with Molotov cocktails and Soviet tanks. The US help that the Hungarian revolutionaries had been led to expect never arrived. In a few days, the revolution was brutally crushed, and a new communist puppet government was installed. Hungary was doomed to remain under Soviet domination for another 33 years.
Senators Kerry, Lieberman and McCain are now publicly warning Obama that his continued inaction in Libya, after publicly calling for Gaddafi’s removal, risks a similar outcome, and US moral culpability for it.
WHOEVER REPLACES GADDAFI COULDN’T BE MUCH WORSE
Senator Lieberman, who has long served as the acknowledged moral conscience of the Senate, cites the call by the rebel leaders themselves for US military assistance to help them end Gaddafi’s dictatorship provides the the central justification for establishing a no-fly zone over Libya. He also argued that such a move is unlikely to be seen as an effort to impose American will on Libya in the rest of the Muslim world, in contrast to the US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We have to try and help those who are offering an alternative future to Libya,” Lieberman said Monday. “We cannot allow them to be stifled or stopped by brutal actions of the Libyan government.”
Lieberman agrees that ideally the US would want to act in concert with other nations or international organizations, such as NATO, the Arab League or the African Union when intervening in Libya. However, he and others warn that the delay required to assemble such support risks allowing a major humanitarian disaster to unfold in Libya. Under these circumstances, they argue, an early and decisive military intervention by the US and its allies without first securing broad international approval is justified.
He also acknowledged that it is impossible to predict, at this point, who or what will fill the vacuum of power in Libya if Gaddafi is driven out. But Lieberman also argues logically: “It’s hard to imagine any new government growing out of this opposition that is worse than Gaddafi.”
Lieberman and McCain both spoke out calling for US intervention in Libya early last week, with McCain adding that the response to the emerging civil war by Obama, who defeated him in the 2008 presidential election, made the US look indecisive and weak. Kerry went public with his recommendations for US air intervention in the conflict Sunday.
GADDAFI’S FORCES COUNTERATTACK
Developments on the battlefields in Libya this week underlined the urgency of prompt US help for the rebels if they hope to achieve a quick victory over Gaddafi, who has dug in around Tripoli and whose forces have the rebels badly outgunned.
Pro-government and rebel forces were engaged in fierce but indecisive back and forth battles for control of key towns along Libya’s Mediterranean coast Monday. At the same time, the US and its NATO allies repeated their demands that Muammar Gaddafi step down, and seemed to move closer to fulfilling rebel requests to establish a no-fly zone to eliminate the threat from Gaddafi’s helicopters and aircraft which have been bombing rebel positions in an attempt to help Gaddafi’s loyalists reclaim the ground they have lost since the uprising began on February 17.
In a second day of heavy fighting for control of Ras Lanuf, the site of an oil refinery east of Tripoli, loyalist planes bombarded the town. Ali Suleiman, a rebel fighter at Ras Lanouf, said that he and his colleagues were capable of taking Gaddafi’s “rockets and the tanks, but not Gaddafi’s air force. We don’t want a foreign military intervention (on the ground), but we do want a no-fly zone. We are all waiting for one.” One of the airstrikes carried out by the Libyan warplanes on Ras Lanuf Monday destroyed a gas station, wounding two rebel fighters in a pickup truck.
On Sunday, Gaddafi used his warplanes, helicopter gunships, tanks and heavy artillery to halt the advance of a column of 500-1000 rebel fighters along the Mediterranean coast road west toward Tripoli. The confrontation took place in the town of Bin Jawwad, 40 miles west of Ras Lanouf. The rebel column fought the pro-Gaddafi forces to a standstill, but was forced to withdraw from the town and await the arrival of reinforcements and heavier weapons from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to the east. In the meantime, the rebels continued to hold the entire coast from Ras Lanouf east to the Egyptian border. However, the oil workers at Ras Lanouf and the nearby oil port of Brega had all fled, bringing the remaining oil production operations to a complete halt.
EYEWITNESS TO ATROCITIES
To the west of Gaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli, government forces besieged the rebel-held city of Zawiyah, which withstood a fourth straight day of lethal assaults and siege.
According to a rebel spokesmen, Gaddafi’s troops had entered the city with tanks. “They demolished the mosque, came into the square, but after seven hours, we beat them back,” in a fierce urban battle that cost the lives of 10 rebels and left more than 30 wounded. However, the spokesman added, Gaddafi’s troops “are still on the east, west and south of the city, and they are going to return. . . We are low on supplies, medicines. We need support, we need help.”
The only reporter in Zawiyah, a correspondent for the British channel Sky News said that on Friday she witnessed pro-Gaddafi snipers opening fire on local residents attending a funeral, killing some of them. Later a column of 25 tanks shelled the town for three hours. The correspondent also said that Gaddafi’s forces had opened fire on an ambulance she was riding in, which is another violation of the rules of war.
In another attack by government forces the next day, the reporter witnessed government troops firing at random. “A boy of 10 was hit by several bullets outside his house. . . An hour later, we saw the military column racing away – another attack had been beaten off. When we left, there were eight tanks destroyed or captured, and the rebels still held the center of the town.”
In Misurata, Libya’s third largest city, to the east of Tripoli, rebels turned back an attack by government troops Sunday, in which 21 opposition fighters and civilians were killed along with 19 government troops. As night fell Monday, city residents were warned that loyalist tanks were again seen approaching.
“We still fear another attack, so everyone is preparing Molotov cocktails that we are making from Pepsi-Cola bottles,” said Salah Abed El-Aziz, a 60-year-old architect. “The morale in the city is very high. It was a beautiful battle; the price was high. But this is the price we have to pay for our freedom.”
A BLOODY STALEMATE DEVELOPING
Neither side appeared able to muster necessary force to decisively defeat the other, resulting in a bloody stalemate, with the death tolls steadily rising, both from the battles for control of several Libyan cities, and the merciless assaults by Gaddafi’s mercenaries and snipers on anyone in the cities still under control who showed any sympathy for the rebels. These included anyone showing up at a local hospital with a bullet wound, or who was caught out on the street when an anti-Gaddafi protest was in progress. Human rights experts estimated the casualty toll at 6,000 killed and climbing.
Nearly 200,000 people have fled Libya since the fighting began, flowing in roughly equal numbers across Libya’s borders with Tunisia and Egypt, with about 5,000 stranded at the Egyptian border.
EARLY OPTIMISM WANING
The fighting is now showing clear signs of turning into a protracted civil war. “Yesterday, we were so optimistic,” said Najla el-Mangoush, a law professor who works with the opposition’s governing council in Benghazi. “Now I’m worried about what’s happening.” He said that Gaddafi “has used every dirty trick on us.”
Concerns about the cutoff in Libyan oil supplies and the spreading violence drove up the cost of a benchmark WTI barrel of oil, briefly touching $107 a barrel on Monday. Oil traders reported that the UN Security Council sanctions on Libyan oil have already taken effect, and that it is no longer available on international oil markets.
The rebels formally asked the Western powers to establish a no-fly zone over Libya’s coastal cities last week. On Monday the Gulf Arab States made a similar request. France also announced that it had secured support for a no-fly zone from Arab League officials.
President Obama said that the US was conferring with its NATO allies, and that “the violence perpetrated by the government in Libya is unacceptable. We’ve got NATO as we speak consulting in Brussels around a wide range of potential options, including potential military options, in response to the violence that continues to take place inside of Libya,” he said. The White House also authorized $15 million in humanitarian aid for the refugees fleeing Libya, as well as evacuation flights to bring them to their home countries.
Obama also issued an explicit warning to Gaddafi loyalists. “I want to send a very clear message to those who are around Colonel Gaddafi. It is their choice to make how they operate moving forward and they will be held accountable for whatever violence continues to take place there,” he said after meeting with Australia’s prime minister, Julia Gillard at the White House.
OBAMA AND GATES RELUCTANT
But White House chief of staff, William Daley explained Obama’s reasons for being reluctant to involve the US militarily. “Lots of people throw around phrases of `no-fly zone’ and they talk about it as though it’s just a game, a video game or something. Some people who throw that line out have no idea what they’re talking about.”
Earlier, Secretary of Defense Gates said during budget testimony before Congress that imposing a no-fly zone on Libya would require, as a first step, an attack to disable Libya’s air defenses. He also warned that if the US went in, it had to be ready for a prolonged conflict in Libya, further straining US military resources that are already stretched thin by its commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gates is also reportedly concerned that by intervening in Libya, the US would be subject to what is called the Pottery Barn rule. When counseling President Bush in 2002 against invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, warned that “once you break it, you are going to own it. . . We’re going to be responsible for 26 million [Iraqi] people. . . and it’s going to suck up a good 40 to 50 percent of the Army for years.” In today’s terms, that means that if the US plays a major role in the ouster of Gaddafi, it will then be held responsible for whoever or whatever takes his place in ruling Libya.
Other defense analysts disagreed with Gates’ assessment that establishing a no-fly zone would stretch US military capabilities and put US soldiers at risk. They suggested that an effective no-fly zone could be quickly established along Libya’s coast by deploying US Navy’s Aegis anti-aircraft missile ships in the Mediterranean, supported by long range AWACS command and control surveillance aircraft, and high performance fighters based on US aircraft carriers. Such a force would not require the diversion of US military assets from Iraq and Afghanistan, and could quickly establish control of the airspace over Libya’s main coastal cities without the need for an attack.
NATO STEPPING UP ITS AIR SURVEILLANCE
Ivo Daalder, the US ambassador to NATO, said that the allies had stepped up their surveillance of Libyan airspace using AWACS radar reconnaissance aircraft on a round-the-clock basis. He also suggested that a no-fly zone may not be necessary to shut down the Libyan military. “When you really look at what is going on, we have actually seen a decrease in both fighters and overall air activity over Libya,” he said, adding that the air attacks carried out by Gaddafi’s forces so far, while spectacular, have been largely ineffective.
Nevertheless, the Libyan air attacks were condemned by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary general, speaking at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He said: “These widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity.” He accused Gaddafi of creating “a human crisis on our doorstep which concerns us all. I can’t imagine the international community and the UN standing idly by if Colonel Gaddafi and his regime continue to attack his own people systematically,” Rasmussen said.
NATO military experts were drawing up various options for the defense ministers of the alliance to consider at an emergency meeting on the Libyan situation Thursday.
Britain and France said that they would seek United Nations authority to enforce a no-fly zone, but Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that his country was opposed to any foreign military intervention in Libya, casting doubt on the ability of the allies to get approval from the Security Council.
NATO has acted militarily before in such situations without UN authorization. It conducted a bombing campaign against Serbia and its forces in Kosovo in 1999 to halt its ethnic cleansing campaign against the province’s ethnic Albanian population.
WHITE HOUSE RESERVING ITS OPTIONS
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the US was reserving the option of providing arms to the anti-Gaddafi rebels, but at the same time, the government denied a British newspaper report that the US had asked Saudi Arabia to provide weapons to the rebels.
Carney said that one of the reasons why the US government had not provided weapons to the rebels already was that it still wasn’t certain which groups were involved with the rebel forces and whether it would be prudent to arm them. “I think that it would be premature to send a bunch of weapons to a post office box in eastern Libya. We need to not get ahead of ourselves in terms of the options we’re pursuing,” Carney said.
State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley added that arming the rebels would technically be a violation of the general UN arms embargo which the Security Council imposed on Libya two weeks ago. “There is an arms embargo that affects Libya, which means it’s a violation for any country to provide arms to anyone in Libya,” Crowley said. “That is not permitted. But, depending on how events unfold, there are a wide range of options available to the international community.”
On Monday, UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, named the former Jordanian foreign minister Abdul Ilah Khatib as his special envoy to deal with the humanitarian atrocities in Libya.
Ban issued a statements saying that “civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence, and calls for an immediate halt to the government’s disproportionate use of force and indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets.”
On Tuesday, Japan became the latest major power to impose sanctions on Libya, freezing any of its financial assets in the country, and refusing entry to its leaders.
REBELS REJECT GADDAFI’S REQUEST FOR PEACE TALKS
In an apparent Gaddafi overture for a negotiated settlement, a former Libyan prime minister appeared on state television to direct appeal to the rebel leaders in Benghazi.
“Give a chance to national dialogue to resolve this crisis, to help stop the bloodshed, and not give a chance to foreigners to come and capture our country again,” said Jadallah Azous al-Talhi, who was Libya’s prime minister in the 1980s.
A spokesman for the rebels quickly rejected the notion of starting peace talks with Gaddafi. As one opposition leader put it, “the answer we gave Gaddafi is: ‘There will be no negotiations as long as you are killing Libyans.’ “
The Washington Post and the Associated Press contributed to this story