Tunisia’s Ben Ali went relatively quietly. Egypt’s Mubarak put up more of a fight but eventually got the message and called it a day. Libya’s Gaddafi on the other hand says he’ll fight to the last drop of blood.
It’s difficult to know whether Gaddafi’s brutal response to opposition is surprising; the ‘Mad Dog of the Middle East’ as Ronald Reagan called him has in the past supported such dubious characters as Idi Amin, Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor.
His Libyan regime has been responsible for the bombing of a Berlin nightclub, the shooting of a British policewoman in London and the downing of a Pan-Am jumbo over Scotland.
But then that has all been water under the bridge since the international community brought Gaddafi and Libya back in from the cold. Libya’s human rights record has reportedly been improving in recent years . The UN Human Rights Council was even going to consider a report this month that included glowing praise for Libya’s progress, albeit praise from the likes of Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.
So for a while it seemed Gaddafi had learnt his lesson. Perhaps he had gone from being a terrorist to being a defender of universal rights. From a Mad Dog to an eccentric uncle.
Not so, as it turns out.
Surprised or not, the international community is unsure what to do next. The initial response by the United Nations and the European Union included plenty of condemning, quickly followed by strongly condemning and of course a great deal of urging. Some EU countries, like Italy and the Czech Republic , made wrong early calls, warning that chaos and even an Islamic state may succeed the fall of Gaddafi. But now everyone, with perhaps the exception of Venezuela, is singing from the same hymn sheet: Gaddafi must go. But the question of how to get him to go is meeting with far less unanimity.
In diplomatic terms, the UN took the unprecedented step of expelling Libya from the Human Rights Council. Even the US, one of the Council’s biggest critics, commended that decision.
Then the UN Security Council got the International Criminal Court involved, meaning Gaddafi and other regime figures may face crimes against humanity charges in The Hague. What’s more, the Security Council took this step unanimously; Russia and China, so often opposed to such measures, left their vetoes in their holsters.
There have also been sanctions at UN and EU level. The Council of the European Union applauds itself for banning the sale of equipment used for internal repression with “unprecedented speed.“ There is also a visa ban and an asset freeze on Gaddafi and his close company. In an overview of its response, the EU also mentions the provision of humanitarian aid and support for the democratic movement in Libya.
The problem is that Gaddafi will not be the slightest bit worried about these sanctions while the rebellion against him continues. His immediate concern is teaching his opponents a lesson. Who cares if he can only take his holidays abroad in Venezuela?
Grounding Gaddafi and stopping his allowance is, as Reuters’ Una Galani explains, is a long-term solution.
The pressing problem is the killing.
The solution to this problem that seems to be under the most serious consideration, and one that anti- Gaddafi rebels are calling for, is a no-fly zone.
According to the theory, a no-fly zone would allow rebels to mobilise and move more freely, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be fired on by attack helicopters and gun-ships. Neither would they be bombarded by jets. Another potential consequence is that Libyan troops may be persuaded to defect.
No-fly zones have been imposed before with a UN mandate (Bosnia) and without one (Kosovo, Iraq). On Libya, China and Russia would be expected to whip out their vetoes.
But no-fly zones are extremely complicated from a diplomatic point of view as well as a logistical one.
For a start, it would mean foreign fighter jets, with Americans certainly piloting many of them, bombing Libyan territory. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates put it in fairly simple terms:
“Let’s just call a spade a spade: A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. It’s a big operation in a big country,” he said.
Gaddafi or not, the sight of American jets bombing an Arab country would open up a can of worms that could undermine President Obama’s efforts to engage with the Muslim world. Still present in two international theatres of war, some analysts also point to an Iraq syndrome , a reluctance to get involved in yet another foreign conflict.
If launching a no-fly zone isn’t daunting enough, then maintaining one could also put off Western leaders. When a no-fly zone was imposed over Kosovo, dozens of fighter jets had to patrol the skies 24 hours a day for 78 days. And Libya is more than 150 times bigger than Kosovo. At a time when defence budgets are being nibbled into, such an enormous operation may not be so appealing to military top brass.
British Prime Minister David Cameron evoked the idea of a no-fly zone earlier this week, although his zeal was shot down by none other than Robert Gates, who dismissed such calls as “loose talk”.
A no-fly zones divides the press, with some saying it makes no sense
and others insisting that it is better than doing nothing.
And for the moment it is dividing politicians. The decision to respond to Libya’s crisis with a no-fly zone is not one to be taken lightly.
In the meantime, as leaders mull it over, Libya is heading towards what could be a bloody civil war and a humanitarian catastrophe.