LONDON — There ought to be many more red faces among the world leaders who used to kowtow and suck up to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, an insane megalomaniac bully. But only a minority will ever admit that they were wrong.
Sir Howard Davies, the director of the prestigious London School of Economics, had to take responsibility for some egregious errors of judgment and has resigned. LSE, one of Britain’s top universities, which had accepted large sums from Libya, given the colonel’s son a doctorate that was apparently ghost- written and full of plagiarism, and undertaken to train Libyan leaders, looks naive at best and, at worst, blindly greedy.
The problems of the LSE are, however, minor in comparison with the embarrassment of many political leaders of developed countries who were happy to be photographed embracing Gadhafi and to allow him to set up his tent in the most prestigious gardens in their capitals.
Then British Prime Minister Tony Blair set the pace by kissing Gadhafi on both cheeks. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was happy to entertain the colonel, though Gadhafi may not have attended Berlusconi’s “bunga-bunga” sex parties. French President Nicolas Sarkozy feted him in Paris.
Gadhafi has gone from hero to pariah in less than a month.
Now the big question is what can be done to rid Libya of this madman. Clearly he has lost control of the eastern areas of this vast desert country and only maintains himself in Tripoli and other areas by means of loyalists and a posse of African mercenaries. Loyalists and Gadhafi himself are prepared to use the most repressive tactics available and have no hesitation in killing and torturing his opponents.
The opposition are divided, ill- disciplined and largely untrained, but many young educated Libyans have come out strongly against Gadhafi’s repressive regime. The opposition control the east of the country and there is resistance elsewhere in the country. It is too early to say when or indeed whether the opposition can prevail. Libya may still have to undergo a bitter civil war with much human suffering.
The refugees who have streamed out of Libya into Tunisia have drained the country of much of its large population of migrant workers and the maintenance of oil production is now problematic. Many of these refugees came from Egypt and Bangladesh, but also included Chinese and many other nationalities. It seemed as though there would be a humanitarian disaster on the Libyan frontier as refugees slept in the open and the cold. There was much suffering but complete disaster was avoided as countries rushed to get the refugees to safety.
The United Nations Security Council in an almost unprecedented show of unity agreed to financial sanctions against Gadhafi’s regime and called on the International Court of Justice (ironically not recognized by governments such as China and the United States, which supported the resolution) to investigate the shooting of civilians in Libya. These murders seemed prima facie crimes against humanity by the regime. The hope has been that this action will deter Gadhafi’s supporters from further military action, but his African mercenaries are probably unaware of any threat of trial and punishment.
Inevitably there has been a feeling, particularly among politicians, in Europe that “something must be done” to help the opposition in Libya and prevent a massacre. There is an understandable reluctance after Iraq and Afghanistan to contemplate the use of Western forces in Libya at least without a U.N. Security council resolution which would almost certainly be unobtainable at least without some new cataclysm. It is also argued by most observers that armed intervention could well be counterproductive uniting all Libyans against the foreign invader.
One possibility contemplated by some is to supply arms to the rebels, but they have not apparently so far asked for such supplies and there does not seem to be a shortage of small arms. Sophisticated weaponry can only be useful in the hands of trained personnel.
Another option would be to impose a no-fly zone on Libya and European leaders have undoubtedly asked their military staffs to consider how this might be implemented. But, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has cautioned, this is no simple matter. Libya is a huge country, many times larger than Britain, and before a no-fly zone could be established it would be necessary to destroy the Libyan Air Force and its bases. This could well involve casualties on both sides and almost certainly some civilian deaths.
Because of the size of the area to be covered, a significant number of allied aircraft would be required and a proper command structure established. NATO strengths are depleted by other commitments, not least in Afghanistan. The only available aircraft carriers are U.S. Navy vessels and if only for political reasons the U.S. government is particularly reluctant to be sucked into a fight in Libya.
In any case, while the Gadhafi regime would no doubt be prepared to use air power against the opposition, the rebels do not pose an easy target for modern fighter jets. Moreover so far the aircraft used by Gadhafi loyalists do not seem to have had much effect. Perhaps, as some have suggested, Libyan Air Force pilots worried about their future have deliberately avoided accurate targeting. The situation could, of course, change and if Gadhafi forces used gunship helicopters against the opposition and in support of ground forces, casualties could rise quickly and pressure for intervention could grow.
For the moment the West must await developments in Libya and should concentrate on humanitarian assistance for refuges as well as the supply of medical equipment and other essentials to ports controlled by the opposition in eastern Libya, which remain open to Western vessels. A “no fly zone” should only be imposed if it becomes imperative to prevent a massacre. The West should refrain from actions that would provoke Arab nationalism and cause tensions with countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, where the democratic revolutions are still very fragile.
Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.
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