Count me skeptical of the claim in Steve Chapman’s column, which Jim highlighted this morning, that allowing Gaddafi to retake Benghazi would not have resulted in a massive war crime — “Srebenica on steroids,” in Dennis Ross’s memorable phrasing. Alan Kuperman’s argument that Gaddafi “did not massacre civilians in any of the other big cities he captured — Zawiyah, Misratah, Ajdabiya” is particularly unpersuasive because, in two out of three of those cases, Gaddafi’s forces did not actually capture and hold those cities. Ajdabiya is back in the rebel fold for now, and Misratah remains under seige, with rebel forces reportedly taking heavy casualties but holding on even as Gaddafi’s forces are fully in control in the cities in between Misratah and Brega. (This New York Times map is pretty good for following day-to-day developments on the ground.)
But this brings us to a very serious problem with allowing Libya to settle into a stalemate, which the administration seems nearly ready to do. In a de facto partition of Libya, the rebels in Misratah are going to end up on the wrong side of the country. And that, as Robert Farley noted on bloggingheads last week, has Srebenica written all over it. If Gaddafi decides to stop trying to retake the east and instead concentrates on consolidating his hold over the west, let’s just say I would not want to be a man who took up arms against Gaddafi in Misratah — or a member of such a man’s family.
If the war in Libya were to end up not so much halting the slaughter of thousands of anti-Gaddafi civilians as moving that slaughter a couple hundred miles to the west, that wouldn’t just be a humanitarian disaster. It would be a strategic defeat in the way that, say, rebel factions brutally turning on each other after the fall of Gaddafi would not be. Geopolitically speaking, the most important thing about the war in Libya is the resonance it has across the region at a pivotal moment in history. Syrian dissidents say that the intervention in Libya has encouraged protests against Assad. In the words of dissident Mohammed Abdallah (whose brother Omar was released over the weekend, while their father remains in prison), it “confirmed people’s awareness… that the international community won’t sit and watch you be killed.” Well, what happens to the momentum of the movement against Assad if Gaddafi demonstrates that he can, in fact, get away with killing a whole lot of people to hold onto power?
I’d really rather not find out the answer to that. Gaddafi needs to go, as soon as possible. It sure would be nice to have some evidence that the Obama administration has any credible strategy for making that happen.