Is international intervention in Libya imminent and/or justified?

Col. Qaddafii's speech on Libyan state TV this evening set a new low not only for him and other beleaguered Arab leaders, but internationally and historically as well. It was one for the ages. Qaddafi rambled and howled, cooed and bellowed, pleaded and, above all, threatened. Surely the most apt adjective to describe the speech is bloodcurdling. Qaddafi essentially threatened to unleash entirely new waves and levels of violence against his own people, suggesting that he has not yet even given the order to fire, but making it clear that he is willing to stop at nothing to keep hold of power if it comes to that. To justify his shameless ruthlessness, he approvingly cited other uses of force by states around the world, particularly permanent members of the Security Council, including US actions in Waco and Falluja, among others, Russian actions against the rebellious Duma, the Chinese military assaults on protesters in Tiananmen Square and so forth. The main point of his address seemed to be to strike fear in the hearts of any Libyan who happened to be listening to him and imply that the blood hasn't yet begun to flow in earnest.

Of course the speech was not only ruthless, but utterly deranged. We're used to that from Qaddafi, but this latest performance took his mania to a whole new level. He appeared unusually disoriented and rambling, at one point pausing to read out “transgressions” worthy of the death penalty under Libyan law. These seem to cover virtually everything other than obsequious fawning before him. At the same time, he produced familiar rhetoric about being a humble man with virtually no possessions and no real ambitions: a simple servant of the nation. In the same breath, he was as megalomaniacal as possible, claiming to be the soul of the nation and “not a normal person” (hardly a revelation, although I doubt most listeners took it in the way he meant.) Moments later, he accused the demonstrators of being both hardened, ultrareligious, fundamentalist "followers of bin Laden and Zawahiri" and of also being shiftless teenage drug addicts. Neither are true, but please, pick one. He repeatedly implied that because of the protests Libya was about to be simultaneously attacked by Al Qaeda AND the United States (as if they work hand in glove), and went so far as to dig up the name of Zarqawi, a menacing figure no one has mentioned for many, many years. It was all part of an incoherent and kitchen-sink parade of horribles and monsters designed to strike terror into the hearts of the listeners. Underneath it all it was clear that the biggest monster in this imaginary evil pantheon is Qaddafi himself, and he made no bones about his willingness to spill blood and burn down his own society.

In terms of Libyan domestic politics, other than promising a bloodbath if the rebellion continues, Qaddafi appealed to tribal leaders in the most paternalistic terms, insisting that he has done a tremendous amount for them and demanding their continued support. Other than those elements of the regime and the military which remain loyal to him for whatever reason, and of course the foreign mercenaries he pays, his only bet is that some kind of deep, local, tribal politics will somehow provide him with a constituency that survives the uprising and his own outrageous conduct. This seems unlikely, but few observers outside of Libya are well informed enough about these deep local politics to be certain. As I've been saying since Saturday morning, it seems to be only a matter of time before the Gaddafi regime falls, and the main question is how many people will be killed in the process and what the endgame will throw up in its place.

Obviously the first impulse of any reasonable person under such circumstances is to ask how this dreadful situation can be most quickly resolved and with the minimum of bloodshed. My initial reaction to calls for foreign intervention, including a no-fly zone, was at least ambivalent and skeptical. Following his speech today, which was mainly a litany of overt threats against the population at large, both the international community and sober observers will have to think twice about maintaining any kind of hands-off attitude and simply leaving it up to the Libyans themselves (which obviously is a preferable scenario, all things being equal.) Clearly there is a strong case to be made for freezing regime assets, wide-ranging economic sanctions and even no-fly zones. A robust international response to not only the violence of the past few days but also the threat of much wider violence from Gaddafi is undoubtedly called for.

The problem is that economic measures will take a good deal of time to have any real effect, let alone lead to regime change, while the crisis is urgent and, if it is taken seriously as a moral and political (and maybe even strategic) crisis, really cannot wait for the grinding attrition which such measures can actually inflict. No-fly zones can, and probably should, be quickly imposed, and it would probably fall to NATO to do that, presumably with UN Security Council backing. However, as with economic sanctions, no-fly zones will only attenuate the degree of violence that the regime can visit upon its people. In few instances have governments needed to resort to air power in order to conduct atrocities and massacres, especially if it is a matter of armed forces confronting unarmed or lightly armed populations. So in the end these measures may well not be sufficient, which is probably one of the main reasons it is taking the international community so long to decide whether they want to undertake them or not. No-fly zones, it should be added, carry with them the prospect of dividing countries into irreconcilable or ungovernable antonymous or even independent zones, and setting the stage for future conflicts on that basis as well, by allowing regional forces to establish the prerogatives of governance for an extended time in a given area that may be difficult to reverse.

Once international intervention to protect the Libyan people from the regime is embraced as a principle and a strategy by the international community, there is every reason to suspect it won't and can't end with no fly zones. If world powers, particularly the West, NATO and the United States, make a point of intervening on behalf of the Libyan people and economic sanctions prove effectively meaningless and no-fly zones only slightly curb the violence, and especially if greater atrocities and massacres become widespread, a direct intervention by ground forces will become increasingly hard to avoid. The point is that in a case like this largely symbolic measures like economic sanctions and no-fly zones ultimately won't cut it if the regime does not fall under the weight of its own contradictions and if it continues to increase the use of brute force against essentially unarmed civilian populations.

The United States government has been very cautious in its approach to the crisis in Libya, disappointing a great many people in the process. President Barack Obama has been virtually silent on the issue, and both he and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have spoken of Libya mostly in the same breath with other Arab states subjected to protest movements. One reason is that the United States does not have much leverage with or in Libya, and presumably does not have particularly good or reliable information either. Another is the fear that strong support from the United States for the protesters might serve to discredit the opposition in the eyes of some Libyans and other Arabs who are used to thinking of the Americans as the enemy. In addition, there are American and other Western economic interests at stake. And finally, I do think there is a reticence to be sucked into an interventionist stance in Libya given that the logic of such a policy might not allow itself to be restricted to ineffective economic measures and no-fly zones. Such concerns certainly explain the Obama administration's caution on the subject thus far.

But the United States risks being perceived as disinterested in Libya, hypocritical or too attached to the deal that was struck by the Bush administration with the Qaddafi regime over its special weapons program in exchange for international rehabilitation. I don't think this is an accurate reflection of Obama administration attitudes, but such accusations have already surfaced and are likely to gain momentum over time. The UN Security Council meeting this afternoon will reveal much about how far the international community is willing to go. The United States, whatever it wants to do at this stage, will also perforce have to take into consideration attitudes of states like Russia and China that may have very serious reservations about external intervention in Libyan affairs. The Obama administration so far hasn't given any indication of being interested in unilaterally imposing sanctions or no-fly zones without this kind of international backing, assuming it's willing to consider these steps at all. If the US does opt for intervention, it will almost certainly have to be with the backing of a strong international coalition and it is extremely unlikely to act alone or in the face of strong Chinese, Russian or other opposition.

For the past couple of decades in cases such as Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Kosovo and elsewhere, the international community and the West in particular have been caught between a new rhetoric of international liberal and humanitarian interventionism on the one hand versus the principle of non-interference and rejecting the legacy of colonialism on the other. The Libyan case is quickly becoming the latest conundrum over whether Western interventions (because it is going to have to be Western, I'm afraid) can legitimately take the form of liberal, humanitarian interventions consistent with an enlightened approach to international law and legitimacy or whether they will also be partly, at heart, or inevitably degenerate into new expressions of old-fashioned colonialism or imperialism.

Without question the Tunisian and Egyptian models, in which popular protests were able to unseat hated dictators and kick off a process of reform that has a very realistic fighting chance of producing reasonably democratic systems, is far preferable to most people in the Middle East and around the world than the Iraq model in which American invasion and occupation, not to mention protracted civil conflict, set the stage for the possible emergence of a stable democracy. The problem is that the Libyan case probably looks a lot more like what Iraqis would have encountered from Saddam Hussein if they had risen up in this manner, and it's very difficult to imagine the Iraqi system under Saddam allowing a "velvet revolution" to succeed or his army throwing him out in a soft coup as happened to Ben Ali and Mubarak. And, of course, direct Western intervention on the ground opens space for various forms of extremists, including Salafist-Jihadists of the Al Qaeda variety, to open new fronts against both Western interests and mainstream Arab societies, as happened in Iraq, and for civil conflict driven by communal or power politics to proceed under the guise of combating foreign occupations.

So the problem of international intervention is not nearly as simple as some people are making it out to be because the steps that are being proposed may well prove ineffective and require stronger measures requiring a much more serious committment, and more blowback, internal and external opposition and unintended consequences. On the other hand, following the demonstrated ruthlessness of Qaddafi and, especially, his blatant threats in his speech today of greatly escalated violence, atrocities and massacres and his approving invocation of various dreadful incidents around the world as a model for how to deal with rebellion and insurrection, doing nothing may be even less attractive or defensible than starting to seriously do something on an international basis in spite of the considerable risks.