A brutal crackdown in Libya

Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi brutally attacked his own people as his regime lost control over key parts of the country.

What happened

Threatening to “burn everything,” Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi violently turned on his own people this week as his regime lost control over key parts of the country. Warplanes strafed demonstrators in the capital of Tripoli, witnesses said, as Qaddafi’s militiamen joined mercenaries from Chad and Niger in randomly shooting hundreds of people, including children. After a week of bloody repression, top Libyan officials—including the justice and interior ministers and key ambassadors—quit and called on their colleagues to abandon the regime. Two military pilots defected to Malta, and an influential cleric issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Qaddafi. In Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi, and the rural region to the east, the military sided entirely with the demonstrators. “We have liberated the eastern areas,” said Fathi Terbil, an opposition lawyer in Benghazi. The military abandoned the border with Egypt, and foreign journalists began entering the country even as refugees streamed out.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Qaddafi to “stop this unacceptable bloodshed,” but he had not relented as The Week went to press. Qaddafi, who has ruled his police state for 41 years, blamed the uprising on foreigners, brainwashing, and pill-pushers. He urged his supporters to attack the protesters, saying the “cockroaches” would be killed “house by house.” He refused to step down. “Muammar Qaddafi is history, resistance, liberty, glory, revolution,” Qaddafi said. “I will die as a martyr at the end.”

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What the editorials said

Qaddafi’s brutal attacks on his people amount to “crimes against humanity,” said The Washington Post. Arab rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen also used violence against their uprisings, but Libya’s deployment of warplanes and death squads is of a different order altogether. This bloodbath demands “not just condemnation but action by the outside world,” including an “immediate downgrading of relations” with the U.S. The U.N. Security Council should also impose sanctions, said The New York Times. It can freeze the assets of the Qaddafi family and top officials. Then, if the regime “does not immediately halt the killing,” the U.N. should reinstitute a ban on arms sales to Libya.

That’s not action, said The Wall Street Journal, that’s rhetoric. A “toothless” Security Council resolution is hardly “the kind of international assistance the Libyan people desperately want right now.” Resorting to diplomacy when people are being shot in the streets “only compounds the impression in Arab minds that President Obama refuses to take sides.” The West should threaten to “bomb their airfields” if the killing doesn’t stop.

What the columnists said

Obama is right to be cautious, said Glenn Thrush in Politico.com. “We don’t need another war, thank you very much.” Qaddafi is a crazy man—some speculate that he’s “whacked out on drugs”—and anything Obama says or does could inspire an “even bloodier crackdown.” And whom, exactly, is the president supposed to support? The demonstrators in Libya, unlike those in Egypt or Bahrain, are poorly organized and uneducated. “Welcome back to the land of no good options, Mr. President.”

Military action doesn’t have to mean all-out war, said Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy. All we need to do is prevent the regime from butchering innocents. NATO could impose a no-fly zone over Libya. And the U.S. and other Western countries could make it clear that members of the regime and the military will be hauled before the International Criminal Court and held individually responsible for any more deaths. “A massacre is unfolding on live television and the world is challenged to act.”

The regime could well be crumbling, said Daniel Byman in Slate​.com. Look at the defections of top officials; while they may be “truly appalled” at the slaughter, “you do not rise in Qaddafi’s government if you suffer from excess morality.” This is most likely a case of insiders trying to distance themselves because they believe Qaddafi will fall. If that happens, expect “chaos,” said Andrew Solomon in The New Yorker. Qaddafi ruled over the quarrelsome Libyan tribes for decades by playing them against one another. Without his repressive fist holding them down, Libya “could easily be roiled in internal battles, ultimately dividing into several smaller countries, each dominated by local tribes.”

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