A Libyan rebel fighter wearing his old national flag as a cape flashes the "victory" sign as he looks at an air force fighter jet flying overhead at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf.
When the uprising started a few weeks ago, the Obama Administration once again appeared off balance as to what to do. After ten days of dithering and sending rhetorical rebukes from the State Department, Barack Obama finally called for Col. Gadhafi to step down.
No talk about sending units of the Sixth Fleet as a precaution, no American Air Force units on standby, no tough words to the dictator up-front and personal to cease and desist, when it may have mattered. Rather, Obama allowed the situation to deteriorate before he even started talking tough. That delay does not now justify U.S. military involvement.
Obama’s ham-handed response to this most recent North African crisis only focused when a glaring humanitarian disaster loomed on Libya’s borders, as thousands of migrant workers poured out and into tiny Tunisia. According to UN humanitarian officials, 200,000 foreign workers have fled the fighting and an additional 200,000 are likely to leave; the UN has appealed for $160 million in emergency humanitarian aid.
In power since 1969, Col. Gadhafi’s mercurial rule is best characterized as a bizarre cult of personality, Arab socialism, and crony commerce. Originally a Soviet client state and long time patron of global terrorist movements, the low point of his political career came when his agents bombed Pan Am flight #103 and UTA French airliner killing 400 civilians, and triggering a decade of withering UN sanctions. But the lure of Libya’s oil wealth eventually lubricated the settlement for the Lockerbie bombing.
Moreover the massive oil wealth paid the bills for Gadhafi’s bizarre rule and global initiatives, but as is usually the case did not filter down to his own people except select cronies and tribes. Col. Gadhafi, his inner circle and militias are the power source even more than the unreliable regular military. Significantly, the quaintly titled Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya lacks the formal working institutions on which a new country could be built.
A legacy of garish “prestige projects” from the country’s twenty-plus story UN Mission in New York, to lavish celebrations of the Colonel’s “Green Book” cult abound in an almost comic litany.
The UN Security Council unanimously passed a tough resolution against the Libyan regime, which among things slaps a travel ban and financial freeze on the Gadhafi family and his inner circle who have stashed vast amounts of money overseas from the country’s $140 billion cash reserves.
The Security Council setback was followed by a wider Human Rights condemnation, when the UN General Assembly voted to suspend Libya from the Human Rights Council in response to the Gadhafi regime’s continuing crackdown on protests. The draft resolution proposed by Arab and African states, condemned any member who “commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.”
I’m stating the obvious to assert that a country with Libya’s horrific human rights credentials should never have been on the Council in the first place, but nonetheless when the Assembly voted to suspend the Gadhafi regime’s membership, this signaled a serious political setback, especially among the Arab and African states.
Libya’s location has long made this desert land a decisive battleground. What is today called Libya languished as a forgotten Fezzan under Ottoman Turks, it was later ruled by the Italians, and during WWII was the setting for protracted battles between German/Italian troops facing British commonwealth forces.
The opposition forces who control Benghazi and the country’s vast east known as Cyrenaica, have long suffered under Gadhafi’s iron fist and thus were the first to rebel, going so far as to proudly hoist the flag of the former pro-American King Idris, who was toppled by the Colonel during the 1969 military coup. Large parts of the country are under rebel control. Restive parts of the country, really the tribal quilt of factions and clans that is Libya, were controlled through a combination of bribes, fear and terror.
The military pendulum can swing back to Gadhafi whose power base in the capital Tripoli resembles a cornered pit bull dog; his African mercenaries, his shoot-first militias, and his security thugs may condemn this tragic land to a long fight.
John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense
issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.