Now that the no-fly zone debate seems to have been settled on the ground in Libya -- it clearly halted an impending massacre in Benghazi, and seems to have given embattled residents in Misrata and Zintan a reprieve -- if not in the U.S. Congress, discussion is now turning to whether to arm the rebels and give them more explicit political support.
Former U.S. ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz addressed this topic obliquely in Friday's press conference. "I'm not going to get into internal discussions about whether we will provide arms or whether we won't provide arms," he said. "I can just say that we're having the full gamut of potential assistance that we might offer, both on the non-lethal and the lethal side, is a subject of discussion within the U.S. government, but there has been no final decisions made on any aspect of that."
NPR subsequently reported, citing Pentagon sources, that among the options being considered were providing the rebels with RPGs -- presumably to use against Qaddafi's tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters. The rebels are eager to get their hands on such weapons.
Many observers are understandably leery of such a step. Not only would it be legally debatable according to the terms of U.N. Security Resolution 1973, which authorized the no-fly/no-drive/no-sail zone in and around Libya, but it would represent a risky escalation in what the Obama administration has been at pains to portray as a TLSLMA -- a "time-limited, scope-limited military action." We may know a few of the familiar faces heading the "transitional council," but do we really know who wields real power and authority among the rebels, to the extent that anyone does? What if they commit a massacre using U.S.-provided weapons? What if they prove to be just as bad as Qaddafi? What if weapons get into the hands of al Qaeda?
And yet there are strong arguments for providing at least small arms. One reason is that weapons are probably going to pour in anyway, perhaps from Egyptian stockpiles or factories and perhaps paid for by Gulf Arab states (indeed, the Wall Street Journal has reported that this is already happening, though Egypt denies it). Another is that the West, or the United States, will have more influence with the rebels if it is arming them than if it doesn't -- and thus may be better placed to shape events going forward. And, of course, the most straightforward reason for giving the rebels weapons is because they may not be able to protect themselves -- let alone defeat Qaddafi's forces -- without them. And given that Obama has said that Qaddafi must go, the United States has staked its prestige on the rebels' victory.
All of that is why opponents of the U.S.-led intervention feared, rightly, that America's involvement in Libya wouldn't stop with a no-fly zone. And yet what was the alternative? To sit back and watch as Qaddafi butchered his own people and re-imposed control over eastern Libya? Then what? And what kind of impact would that have on democratic uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East? Dictators everywhere would learn the lesson that brutality works, and that -- once again -- the words of the international community mean nothing. An early end to the "Arab Spring" could stoke resentment and bitterness for years, with dangerous consequences not only for the region but for Americans and Europeans as well.
None of this is ideal. Congress is unhappy, Obama's own team is divided, the coalition diplomacy is a mess, and opportunistic leaders in China, Russia, and elsewhere are aping Qaddafi propaganda to bash the West. Those looking for consistency in U.S. policy won't find it in Bahrain or Yemen, to take just two examples. Yet thousands of Libyan lives have been saved, millions of Arabs are cheering on Western airstrikes for the first time in history, and one of the world's nastiest tyrants is on his way out. Surely all that is an accomplishment worth celebrating -- and validating by finishing the job.
What does grief and courage sound like? It sounds a lot like the voice of Perditta Nabbous, the wife of Libyan citizen journalist Mohammed Nabbous, 27, who was shot and killed last Saturday by forces loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi. Mohammed was the charismatic voice and face of Libya al-Hurra, the online TV station he set up in the early days of the uprising. Mo, as his many fans and supporters around the world called him, was attacked while trying to record footage from Benghazi.
"He got so furious because nobody was taking pictures and videos," Perditta told me, after many Western journalists fled Benghazi ahead of a furious assault by Qaddafi's troops. Mo had been trying to reach the wreckage of a downed Libyan jet -- which later turned out to belong to the rebels -- when his car came under heavy fire. He died in the hospital several hours later. "He said, ‘I need to get proof of the plane so people will believe this,'" Perditta said.
She is 8 months pregnant. "I want Mohamed's child to live," she told me.
Her voice growing stronger, she called for the U.S.-led strikes on Qaddafi's air defenses and troops to continue. Here it is in her own words. I can't put it any more powerfully than this:
"We started this in a pure way, but he turned it bloody. Thousands of our men, women, and children have died.
We just wanted our freedom, that's all we wanted, we didn't want power. Before, we could not do a single thing if it was not the way he wanted it.
All we wanted was freedom. All we wanted was to be free. We have paid with our blood, with our families, with our men, and we're not going to give up.
We are still going to do that no matter what it takes, but we need help. We want to do this ourselves, but we don't have the weapons, the technology, the things we need. I don't want anyone to say that Libya got liberated by anybody else.
If NATO didn't start moving when they did, I assure you, I assure you, half of Benghazi if not more would have been killed. If they stop helping us, we are going to be all killed because he has no mercy anymore.
On Monday, a relief ship carrying medical supplies docked in Misrata, a town west of Benghazi that has been besieged for weeks by Qaddafi's tanks, snipers, and RPG-wielding troops. The ship, which included donations from the German aid organization Medeor, was arranged by Nabbous and his friends and supporters, who are vowing to keep the channel alive. Says Perditta, "We have to make what he started go on."
With the passage tonight of a robust U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone in Libya -- and then some -- Barack Obama has committed the United States to intervening in a Muslim country for the third time in a decade.
Only this time, the resolution's passage was a victory for the kind of painstaking multilateral diplomacy that was so often scorned by his predecessor, who preferred to work with "coalitions of the willing" and dismissed the United Nations as ineffective, weak, and morally questionable.
Of course, there's no guarantee that a piece of paper will succeeding in protecting the thousands of Libyans cheering in Benghazi's main square from Qaddafi's forces, which are gathering some 100 miles away outside the besieged town of Ajdabiya and have completely surrounded Misrata. What needs to happen now is swift military action against Qaddafi's heavy weapons -- call it a "no-drive zone," and perhaps even the bombing of his compound in Tripoli. Are Britain and France, which have taken the lead in pushing for military action, up to the challenge? Or will the U.S. once again be called upon to clean up a nearby mess Europe couldn't solve on its own? We'll soon find out.
One thought: It is amazing, and altogether incredible, that an uprising that began as peaceful protests calling for the release of political prisoners has made it this far, just as it is unfortunate that Qaddafi's horrific use of violence has forced the international community to intervene. But if such is the price of saving the Arab revolutions, so be it.
The world now has to win this fight. As NATO Secretary-General Fogh Rasmussen put it earlier today, "If Gadaffi prevails it will send a clear signal that violence pays."
At the Al Jazeera Forum this weekend in Doha, where dozens of Arab political figures and activists of all persuasions gathered to discuss the dramatic events sweeping the Middle East, there was a lot of optimism in the air. One Egyptian organizer, YouTube starlet Asma Mahfouz, even expressed her hope that next year's forum would be titled "One Arab Nation With No Borders."
Pressed over lunch about the risks of it all turning sour, one Emirati political scientist told several of us, "Let them dream. These youth have never had the chance to dream before. It is good to have dreams."
But outside of Tunisia and Egypt, Arab dreams are fast becoming Arab nightmares. In Libya, a spontaneous popular uprising is turning into a civil war -- one that the rebels are rapidly losing. In Bahrain, protests that began as a call for civil rights and constitutional reform have devolved into ugly sectarian street battles; and as Saudi forces intervene to protect the ruling Sunni monarchy, the situation risks sparking a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen is kicking out foreign journalists as tribes cowboy up and activists talk of an impending bloodbath. Iraq's hapless government is clamping down on political freedom. And all of this is taking place against the backdrop of rising oil prices, a hopelessly stalled Middle East peace process, and an epic natural disaster in the world's No. 3 economy.
There are some bright spots: Morocco's King Mohammed VI seems to understand at some level that he needs to embrace change lest he be swept up by it; Jordan has remained surprisingly calm even though its monarch, King Abdullah II, has thus far only pretended to get it; Kuwait already had a relatively vibrant political scene; and quiescent Qatar and the go-go United Arab Emirates don't seem at risk of any unrest whatsoever. But in general, the region's autocrats are responding as they always have to popular anger: with a combination of brute force, comically half-baked reforms, and economic bribes.
What will happen next is anybody's guess, but I find it hard to be optimistic in the short term. Much depends on how the democratic transitions in Tunisia and especially Egypt go, but it will be many months before the dust settles there. In the meantime, the rest of the region is ablaze. And as they did with Iraq, Arab leaders will now eagerly point to Libya and Bahrain as cautionary examples of what happens when citizens take to the streets.
Meanwhile, the region's two traditional problem children -- Lebanon and Palestine -- haven't even joined the fray yet. Burgeoning youth protest movements in both places are calling on their bickering, ineffective leaders to get their acts together in the name of national unity, but the forces of the status quo are far stronger. It's hard to imagine Hezbollah and Lebanon's March 14 movement in Lebanon, or Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, putting aside their differences and coming together for the common good. And Iran and its pal Syria haven't begun to make trouble yet. Now that Saudi Arabia has thrown down the gauntlet in Bahrain, the gloves may come off -- especially if the U.N. special tribunal ever gets around to indicting Hezbollah figures for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
None of this is to say that there is some magic formula that the United States could have employed to avoid this dangerous state of affairs. U.S. influence in the region is fast evaporating, as evidenced by the fact that its ostensible allies -- Israel and Saudi Arabia -- are now flaunting their rejection of Washington's advice: Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly about to debut an absurdly disingenuous peace initiative, and Saudi troops just rolled into Bahrain a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates urged King Hamad to compromise and embrace political reform. The Pentagon didn't even get a courtesy call.
But what happens next will have huge repercussions for U.S. national security, and will present President Obama will terrible dilemmas in the region. If Saudi troops kill Shiites in Bahrain using American weapons, what will he say or do? Iran wasn't behind any of these uprisings, but if it starts creating mischief, how should he respond? What if Yemen turns into another Somalia? What if Palestinians rise up against Israel in a third intifada? If Egypt's transition goes badly? Right now, coming up with tough questions is a lot easier than providing answers.
Here's the video of a Bloggingheads discussion I had Friday with Issandr el-Amrani, an FP contributor who now writes for the Economist and various other outlets, about the wave of revolutions now sweeping the Arab world. Issandr is one of the most knowledgable people I know when it comes to Middle East politics, and his thoughts are well worth your time.
Check it out:
In case there were any remaining question that Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the scion of Libya's fast-fading leader, is not exactly the brightest star in the galaxy, he dispelled those doubts today by appearing on the Al-Arabiya satellite channel to declare that "everything is normal" in Tripoli even as news outlets reported on growing signs that the Qaddafi family is losing its grip on Libya.
Earlier this week, Seif had invited foreign journalists to the Libyan capital so they could see for themselves just how wonderfully the Qaddafis were handling what he downplayed as the work of foreign-backed, pill-popping Al Qaeda terrorists bent on Libya's destruction.
But correspondents for both Al Arabiya and the New York Times, two news outlets that took up his invitation, managed to break away for their minders and report that all was not, in fact, under control.
The Times' David Kirkpatrick "discovered blocks of the city in open revolt" and spoke with eyewitnesses who told of "snipers and antiaircraft guns firing at unarmed civilians, and security forces were removing the dead and wounded from streets and hospitals, apparently in an effort to hide the mounting toll." Al Arabiya reported that Qaddafi's security forces appeared to be abandoning Tripoli's streets to the rebels. And the Associated Press relayed word that the Libyan regime "passed out guns to civilian supporters, set up checkpoints Saturday and sent armed patrols roving the terrorized capital."
Recent reports from eastern Libya, where Western news organizations have had correspondents for days now, make it clear that the Qaddafis have lost control of everywhere east of Ajbadiya, some 850 kilometers from Tripoli, while the opposition has held onto Misurata, the country's third-largest city, and is closing in on the capital from the west as well. The Qaddafis still have plenty of firepower in Sirt, their home base, and in Tripoli, but their room for maneuver is shrinking rapidly.
So, what was Seif thinking?
Perhaps he thought that the regime really could control the flow of information, present a cleaned-up Potemkin village inside the capital, and earn some goodwill from foreign news organizations by appearing to be cooperative. But nobody's buying the spin, and newspapers and satellite channels have become extremely sophisticated in how they leverage citizen networks in difficult reporting environments. Libyans inside the country are still, miraculously, risking their lives to take gritty cell-phone videos and upload them to Facebook or other social networking sites, where Libyan exiles pick them up, translate and provide context, and pass them along to a broader audience. Activists and journalists have been using tools like Skype to communicate directly with sources in and around Tripoli, and then spreading the news quickly on Twitter.
So, even if Kirkpatrick were stuck being driven around by government minders who only showed him what they wanted him to see, his colleagues in Benghazi and Cairo would still be able to get the real story from brave Libyan eyewitnesses who want the world to hear their story.
Unfortunately for Seif, Kirkpatrick managed to go a step beyond that and even managed to speak with some anti-Qaddafi folks in person:
[A]t another stop, in the neighborhood of Tajoura, journalists stumbled almost accidentally into a block cordoned off by makeshift barriers where dozens of residents were eager to talk about a week of what they said were peaceful protests crushed by Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces with overwhelming, deadly and random force.
A middle-age business owner, who identified himself only as Turkey, said that the demonstrations there had begun last Sunday, when thousands of protesters inspired by the uprising in the east had marched toward the capital’s central Green Square. He said the police had dispersed the crowd with tear gas and then bullets, killing a man named Issa Hatey. [...]
Asked why he and his neighbors were rising up now, after living under Colonel Qaddafi for 42 years, Mr. Turkey, 46, shrugged. “No one can tell the time,” he said. After forty years of pressure, “you explode.” Two funerals were taking place nearby for those who died on Friday, and he said they expected another big protest on Sunday.
It seems hard to imagine the regime can hold out much longer, given how quickly the information walls are coming down, but let's not forget that the Qaddafis have said repeatedly and emphatically that they will fight to the death. Their loyalists have every reason to believe that the rebels -- who say they are preparing to march on Tripoli and liberate the city even if it takes "pilots who are ready to crash their planes in a suicidal way" -- will exact furious retribution after 42 years of tyranny. Expect them to go down swinging.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
It took a little under a month for Tunisians -- with a vital assist from their military -- to oust Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak went from pillar of stability to disgraced ex-president in just 18 days.
Now, as we enter a seventh day of protests and armed street battles raging across Libya, the unimaginable fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi suddenly seems very imaginable indeed.
So far, ant-government demonstrators have more or less taken over major cities in eastern Libya, including Benghazi, the country's second-largest. The uprising has been bloody: Human Rights Watch reports that as many as 233 people have died, and probably more.
Last night, events seemed to reach a tipping point, as representatives of several large tribes voiced their support for the rebels and several diplomats -- including Libya's envoy to the Arab League and its No. 2 man in China -- resigned in protest.
Then, as protesters reportedly thronged Tripoli's Green Square and marched on Qaddafi's compound, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of the ruler, appeared on state television, dressed in a black suit and tie and slouching in front of a green map of Africa.
In a bizarre, apparently off-the-cuff speech, Seif accused the protesters of receiving foreign help and seeking to set up "Islamic emirates" in eastern Libya -- that is, when they weren't doing LSD and working with African mercenaries. Warning of a "civil war" in the making, he vowed to fight "until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet."
Many things still aren't clear in Libya, where rumors are flying fast and furious and foreign journalists aren't able to operate. Last night, there was a rumor going around Twitter that Qaddafi had fled to Venezuela; Caracas denied it. Another story had it that Seif had been shot by his brother Mutassim, who as the national security advisor theoretically controls large parts of the security apparatus.
Seif's speech was certainly crazy, but he may be right about one thing: There is a nasty internecine conflict on the way in Libya. From all that we've seen, the regime will do anything to stay in power, including shooting people in cold blood with heavy-caliber weapons. It doesn't look like there will be a nice, friendly "let's all hold hands and clean up Tahrir Square" moment. After four decades of unspeakable tyranny, Libyans will be out for vengeance.
For those interested in following events in Libya on Twitter, I've made a list of key sources to follow. Please bear in mind, however, that much of what goes around in hearsay and unconfirmed rumor -- much of it no doubt wrong. Unfortunately, it's the best information we have to go on right now. I'll keep adding good feeds to the list as I find them, and feel free to recommend your own.
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