"What if" in Libya

13th Sep 2011

Had NATO not intervened, atrocities would have been inevitable


Making good on Moammar Gadhafi’s promise to “cleanse Libya house by house, room by room,” forces loyal to the Libyan leader entered the eastern city of Benghazi yesterday and began a wholesale massacre of the city’s civilian population, putting a decisive end to the popular uprising that began there Feb. 17.

A combined Libyan military assault by air and sea laid random waste to buildings throughout the coastal city. At around 2 p.m., tank columns entered Benghazi, easily crushing the impromptu barriers that residents had set up to block their path. Soon after, according to satellite imagery, armored personnel carriers bearing thousands of Libyan soldiers from Tripoli entered the city, putting down scattered resistance from poorly armed rebel fighters.

What has followed the subjugation of the revolt, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, is an indiscriminate campaign of rape, torture and murder of civilians in the city that has long been a hotbed of anti-Gadhafi sentiment. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who failed in his attempts to launch international military intervention against the Gadhafi regime, delivered a tearful address last night to Parliament in which he said the Libyan leader is “in the process of perpetrating the most appalling crime against humanity since the Rwandan genocide of 1994.”

The ICRC has received dozens of reports from individuals who say that unarmed men of all ages have been taken from homes en masse, lined up against walls and executed by government firing squads. A mass grave with thousands of corpses — including women and children — has already been identified on the outskirts of the city. One defecting officer, who entered Benghazi yesterday, said military leaders are promptly executing any soldier who does not comply with orders to kill civilians.

Gadhafi has proven resistant to unanimous condemnation from world leaders, United Nations Security Council resolutions insisting he cease using violence, and an oil embargo that has earned the backing of over 150 governments. In a rambling speech delivered last night in Tripoli’s Green Square, the Libyan dictator referred to citizens of Benghazi as “cockroaches” and “rats,” pledging to “exterminate Benghazi of all infidels, traitors and oppositionists.”

The above paragraphs, thankfully, are an alternate history. Gadhafi did not bomb Benghazi, nor did tens of thousands of his soldiers enter the city. But that’s only because the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, led by the United States, Britain and France, launched Operation Unified Protector and stopped him from carrying out his clearly expressed murderous designs.

There can be no question at this point, however, that the above scenario or something like it would have played out had NATO not enforced a no-fly zone over Libya beginning on March 19. In the four-week period between the first protests against the regime and the commencement of Operation Unified Protector, Gadhafi forces had killed hundreds of people. The dictator used precisely the sort of eliminationist rhetoric — referring to his enemies as “cockroaches” — that Hutu extremists employed. Rather than accept offers that would allow him to survive provided that he relinquish power, Gadhafi, to this day, is urging his supporters to fight to the utmost in pursuit of a hopeless and destructive cause. He is clearly willing to bring down the entire country with him.

While those who support military intervention are rightly expected to weigh costs against benefits, the same is rarely expected of those who oppose it. Their job is simple: List all the possible things that could go wrong, then criticize war supporters for their naïveté and reckless idealism when things inevitably do.

While I was visiting Libya last month, countless people assured me that, had it not been for NATO’s bombs and strategic assistance to the rebels, an untold number of their countrymen would have died at Gadhafi’s hands, and the regime would have become even more repressive. Though any number of negative scenarios could still play out, it is safe to say that a large-scale massacre was averted thanks to NATO military force.

In a March 28 speech to the American people, President Obama said that sitting idly by while Gadhafi slaughtered his people would have been tantamount to “a betrayal of who we are.” Americans can rest assured that, in Libya, their values have not — so far — been forsaken.


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