February 22, 2011 | Politico

Plus, Libya’s Qadhafi a Short-Timer?

Muammar Qadhafi, dubbed the “Mad Clown of Tripoli” by former President Ronald Reagan, has been in power for 42 years. Over those years, this dangerous and eccentric Libyan dictator has been involved in the financing of terror groups, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the bombing of Western aircraft, and the overall destabilization of the Middle East. It is for these reasons, among others, that Western leaders are generally happy to see him go.

The people of Libya want to see him go for other reasons. As human rights watchdog Freedom House notes, “due to the authoritarian nature of the Libyan regime, men and women have no political or civic rights outside those sanctioned by the state. Political parties are banned and membership in such entities is punishable by death. Anyone trying to engage in political or civic activity is liable to severe penalties including arrest, detention, and possible torture.” It comes as no surprise that the Libyan people have embraced the revolutionary contagion that is sweeping the Middle East.

The Libyans first began their revolt in Benghazi, the country’s second largest city. This was significant because Libya’s East, represented by Benghazi, has long chafed under Qadhafi rule. Apart from this regional and tribal distinction, the city is also viewed as the country’s intellectual center and a political weathervane. From student protests to Islamist insurrections, Benghazi has always been at the center of trouble for Qadhafi's regime. From Benghazi, the protests quickly spread to the countryside and to Tripoli.

The regime is now reportedly firing upon civilians with warships and missiles. Anti-government forces, however, have battled back. They have reportedly captured some of the state’s weaponry. Meanwhile, the strongman and his son, Seif al-Islam, have vowed to fight to the end. This is civil war.

The White House, for its part, has been conspicuously quiet on the fate of Libya. Compared to the regular (and often conflicting) statements during the Egypt crisis, President Obama and his team have said precious little. This silence is hard to understand, now that Qadhafi is openly committing war crimes.

To be sure, one concern is the security of the country’s considerable oil reserves and its future oil production. The price of gas has reached levels not seen since 2008, stemming from the Libya crisis.

There is also the question of stability after Qadhafi is gone. There are precious few functioning institutions in Libya. Nearly everything was tightly controlled by Qadhafi and his clique. Unlike in Egypt, where the military was prepared to step in, there appears to be a vacuum waiting the fall of Qadhafi. It is unclear if the dissident groups and reform factions are prepared to step forward in a meaningful way.

Another concern, not yet covered by the media, is the potential rise of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. This affiliate of Al Qaeda has now seen dozens if not hundreds of cadres freed from jail in Benghazi. The LIFG, at one point, represented a significant core of the larger Al Qaeda network. The lack of media coverage makes this difficult to determine this group is active in the current unrest.

America has important interests in Libya. However, at this moment, we have very little leverage. Ironically, the best option may be to exert influence with our European allies that maintained economic ties with Libya, even when we counseled against them. The question now is how much leverage they have, and whether they seek American guidance, given the friction over Libya in the past, and our relative weakness on the world stage at present.

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