Thursday, February 24, 2011

Statements won't halt Gadhafi's crimes

Consider for one moment the savagery in Libya this week, when Moammar Gadhafi unleashed his jets, helicopter gunships, and artillery on own people. Then place that against a backdrop of the speech on Tuesday by the stuttering psychopath himself, followed by his instructions to hunt down and butcher his opponents.

Do that, and then tell us, without wincing, that had some foreign power or powers magically deployed the military means to shoot down Gadhafi’s aircraft and bomb his soldiers, you would not, deep down, have taken immense satisfaction in the results – regardless of whether the United Nations had authorized the move.

It’s in times like these that the formal institutions of international relations tend to break down. What we’re witnessing today we already witnessed in early 1991, when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein used his tanks and helicopters to crush a Shiite uprising after his army’s withdrawal from Kuwait. At the time the George H. W. Bush administration permitted the massacre to continue, fearing that any intervention might topple the Iraqi regime, creating a vacuum in Baghdad. Extraordinarily, Washington somehow managed to recognize Saddam both as an agent of instability in the Gulf and one of stability at home.

That delicate American adjustment of the geopolitical dials may have imposed some quiet in the region, but at a terrible human cost. Tens of thousands – some say the figure is closer to a couple of hundred thousand – of Iraqis were killed, most of them Shiites. This was followed by a 12-year U.N. sanctions regime that debilitated the Iraqi population but also strengthened Saddam’s rule. Oddly, many of those who later demanded that President George W. Bush gain U.N. approval before sending American forces to Iraq were the very same who had earlier denounced U.N. sanctions as inhuman.

What can the international community do to confront homicidal leaders like Gadhafi? One answer came precisely two decades ago, when it did virtually nothing against Saddam Hussein. A no-fly zone was imposed over northern and southern Iraq (and some are calling for such a zone to be declared over Libya), but otherwise the Baath leadership reasserted its authority over Iraqi lives unhindered. In 2003 Bush provoked much international displeasure by ordering an invasion of the country. However, many of those who expressed outrage with American actions never bothered to qualify that outrage by recalling Saddam Hussein’s serial brutality throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when he was directly or indirectly responsible for the death of not far from 1 million people – including Kurds, Shiites, and other opponents of his regime, as well as Iraqi and Iranian soldiers and civilians killed in the Iraq-Iran war that Saddam had initiated.

Gadhafi, like Saddam Hussein before him, is not someone who would ever consider ceding power peacefully. He is not someone apt to read the solemn reports of non-governmental organizations and embrace their recommendations, or tolerate independent monitors examining the work of his people’s committees. There are autocrats and there are autocrats. No one truly regrets the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, but the worst the former Egyptian president could do was dispatch camel-riding thugs to disperse his assembled critics. Only once did Egyptian fighters fly over the demonstrations, and it was not to strafe civilians.

But when dealing with Gadhafi’s Libya, as with Saddam’s Iraq, the conceptual boundaries of international intervention change. With such individuals, we enter into the sinister world of unaccountable mass murder. It’s fine for the U.N. Security Council to demand, as it did on Tuesday, that Gadhafi’s regime “meet its responsibility to protect its population,” act with restraint, and show deference to human rights and international humanitarian law. However, this is only useful if it underpins a more potent rejoinder, including possibly seeking Gadhafi’s indictment for crimes against humanity, denying his military the means to bomb civilians, and laying the groundwork for international recognition of an alternative Libyan leadership.

For now there is still much pussyfooting over Libya. The United States, ever fearful of an Islamist takeover in Tripoli, has limited its official reaction to ejaculations of indignation over Gadhafi’s ferocity. It seems increasingly obvious that Barack Obama is just not very good at adopting unambiguous positions on mass repression – whether it takes place in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, or now Libya. The president, so eloquent when it comes to expressing abstract values in Muslim-Western relations, is without a moral compass when facing reality.

If Obama does not take the lead on Libya, or on how to manage the momentous changes in the Middle East, no one will. In fact no one has. Europe is governed by a gaggle of superintendents devoid of any vision, whose principal preoccupation is reviving their injured economies. Say what you will about Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, it’s difficult not to regret their absence watching the European leaders of today. But Washington is offering no contrast. Gadhafi is perhaps right in assuming that if he can turn the situation in Libya around quickly enough, Western leaders will swallow their disgust and deal with him, because the stability of oil markets demands it.

The greater probability is that this is the end for the Libyan leader. Even if he manages to tighten his grip on Tripoli, Gadhafi may not have the necessary means to reconquer his country. But let’s assume for a moment that he does. Should the international community, in particular the United States, allow that to happen? Hasn’t Gadhafi done enough to earn more than just a few disobliging communiqu├ęs? He has, but good luck in finding someone to show him the door.

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