Libyan rebels are currently overrunning the last lines of defense for Moammar Gaddafi’s regime. As of midnight EST, the rebels are two miles from downtown Tripoli. Only time will tell, but the West may have swapped the devil we know for one we don’t.
No one should be sad to see Gaddafi go. His regime has mismanaged his country and tormented the Libyan people while exporting terrorism and provoking the West for four decades. Nonetheless, Gaddafi had ostensibly changed. After 9/11 he disarmed, renounced terrorism and paid massive reparations to Lockerbie victims’ families. At least in the halls of Western power, Gaddafi was seen as a new man, a partner for peace, a regime reformed.
Then events of the early spring unfolded cruelly. The Arab Spring heated up as Europe’s economy cooled down. France was caught exporting teargas to Tunisia at the height of its crackdown against democratic protestors. By the ides of March, Gaddafi’s forces were ferociously beating back the nascent rebellion. Then they were at the gates of Benghazi. A bloodbath was imminent. Sarkozy seized on the opportunity to make it up to his southern neighbors. The UN invoked Responsibility to Protect. NATO obligingly fired up the war machine as international bickering over command spilled into the media. Quickly it became obvious that—apart from the threat of slaughter—the major consideration was the destruction of the oil refineries in Benghazi. Libya provides 20% of Italy’s oil and a significant portion of other EU countries’. Europe faced the very real possibility that the valves in North Africa would squeak shut under an artillery barrage. The Roman economy teetered on the edge of default and would sink into the Mediterranean and drag Europa with it if the energy dried up for even a few days.
The decision to intervene was made with hours to spare and there seemed to be scant strategy behind the move. Then there was a long stalemate and the world saw the rebels’ lack of battle-readiness. At some point, the same forces who were firing on their own air support and running away in flip-flops five months ago gained the capacity to sweep the army from every inch of Libya. This empirically reveals that the West has been surreptitiously arming, training and supplying the rebels. France has provided the rebels with a significant arsenal including assault rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers and anti-tank missiles. Western special forces have likely been training the rebels in asymmetric combat. The full extent of the West’s support for the rebels may never be known, but it was enough to create a modern fighting force from scratch in a few months.
So who are the Benghazi rebels? What do they want? What will they do when they are in power? The only thing the West truly knows about them is that eastern Libya was the largest supplier per capita of foreign fighters to the Iraqi insurgency. That is to say, many of them are likely to be Islamists. The US, UK and France, wearing their NATO hats, are arming and training militants who are probably not quite sympathetic to Western ideals.
Rooting Gaddafi from power twenty years ago might have been appropriate had the opportunity arisen. But such punishment now comes at an awkward time since Gaddafi had demonstrated a desire to join the community of responsible nations. This sends an unfortunate message. Bush threatened to invade the “Axis of Evil” for pursuing weapons of mass destruction and proceeded to invade the weakest of the three and the one incapable of pursuing such weapons. This sent the message to Iran and North Korea that they would be fools not to develop such weapons to deter invasion. So too, toppling a reformed pariah sends the message that cooperating with the West, and especially disarming, will only invite a Western-backed overthrow in the end. Other ‘rogues’ seeking to join the ‘normal’ world may now hesitate to do so.
NATO also opted to back uncertainty in a relatively stable country on Europe’s frontier. There is no guarantee that a smooth transition will follow Gaddafi's tumble. If power remains in contention, Libya could become a lawless country infested with disaffection and militancy, exporting instability. This conveys the rather bizarre message that the West doesn’t necessarily act in its own strategic interest but may use NATO to lash out to settle old scores. In a world of rising powers, this perception could greatly diminish NATO’s credibility as a global partner for peace.
In spite of all this, it is important to highlight that the decisions made in March reflected a stark choice between evil and greater evil. It would be childishly simplistic to second-guess those decisions in light of the thorny moral and strategic calculations involved. Above all else, the world had a real responsibility to protect the innocent civilians in Benghazi. Undoubtedly, leaders of the North Atlantic will take a moment to pat themselves on the back for a swift NATO victory. With the US and NATO mired in two unending wars and the EU and US economies drooping, they could all use the good PR.
Nonetheless, they should remember that the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend. We must be very careful about whom we heavily arm. Some of these rebels likely fought American soldiers in Iraq, and may not hesitate to do so again, in spite of the Western assistance. If they do, it would not be the first time that we were haunted by a monster of our own creation. In the 1980s, along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the US armed, trained and supplied a fighting force in Afghanistan to evict the Soviets. The conduit for this assistance was our friend Osama bin Laden.