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Cheerleaders of Democracy

The United States must resist pressure to make Libya its fight

By Alexander R. Konrad

Get your dance on to the “Zenga Zenga Song” like well over two million other people have. By all means, join me in my disbelief at each speech on Al-Jazeera or read the quotes in which he “dares you” you to find dead protesters as media outlets display photos of those very fallen. Just do not give Muammar al-Gaddafi what he wants—and put pressure on Western nations to intervene in Libya.

In February of 2009, I argued that Gaddafi was right to argue for more African unity. That seems a lot longer than two years ago at the present, as Gaddafi attacks his own people through mercenaries and air strikes. I would never give credit to Gaddafi for anything right now, except for his bid for most egomaniacal leader in the world. Yet in a perverse way, Gaddafi’s old pet project could have proven useful in the current situation. With balanced leadership, a stronger African Union could have helped put a stop to the mercenary units Gaddafi has rented out around the continent and now called back to suppress his people. Such an organization could have also threatened and used military force to limit the attacks Gaddafi forces are making in waves on cities held by the rebels. An African-initiated no-fly zone might have stopped the bombing runs.

Africa could have taken measures that the West currently can only “consider” and debate. France and the United Kingdom have demanded a no-fly zone, but this term has almost taken on a life of itself. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has recently pointed out, no-fly zones require violence. To set one up in Libya, NATO planes would have to bomb Libya’s air defenses. That accomplished, the no-fly zone would entail shooting down any Libyan planes that then entered the airspace to attack rebel positions.

Gaddafi, I believe, would privately welcome this move. In his struggle with the rebels, his troops have not fared very well. From various accounts, Counterattacks have been repulsed by  volunteer troops made up largely of civilians and semi-trained soldiers operating outdated equipment or arriving on the scene completely unarmed. They bring to mind the almost suicidal bravery of those who famously advanced without weapons against the Nazis at Stalingrad. Those Russian forces, however, were defending their homeland from invasion. The Libyans must defend their homeland from within its own leadership.

And that is exactly how this crisis must stay. It cannot devolve into a situation in which Gaddafi’s crazy claims of foreign agency gain any validity. The situation is unfair; forty years of rule under Gaddafi was also unfair. So, perhaps, is the legacy of the Iraq War on America’s options here. Nicholas D. Kristof’s latest column in the New York Times has also made this point. His alternatives to U.S. military intervention, however, depended heavily on an Arab League and African Union no-fly zone. Now it is apparent that the Arab League will not agree to such a step.

Blame the Arab League for its passivity. But do not think that the United States, or any other body, possesses the political capital to create such a zone on its own. Military intervention by the United States would run the risk of galvanizing Gaddafi’s supporters and delegitimizing his protestors. At most, the U.S. government should be applying much more pressure on its allies in the Arab League and Africa to take stronger action.

The history books must never have to debate “who really won the Libyan revolution.” If this effort is to succeed, it must come from the strength of the Libyan people. They have certainly been dealt an unlucky hand: Without his ability to exploit his nation’s oil reserves, Gaddafi’s regime would have been out faster than whatever advisers told Beyoncé and Mariah Carey it was a good idea to sing for big bucks at Gaddafi family private parties.

From the United States and Western nations, there is not much we can do to help. We can contribute to aid organizations working to mitigate the growing refugee crisis on the Tunisian border. We can read reports, stay informed, and make sure that Libya remains part of the national dialogue—especially in our outlets of debate, from classrooms to Institute of Politics Forums.

No matter how bizarre Gaddafi acts, however, we cannot compromise ourselves by demanding our country flex its muscles for the cause. It would be so easy to ground his underfunded, corrupt air force if we tried—the two assault ships the U.S. sent through the Suez Canal on Wednesday could probably do it on their own.

It’s tempting to demand more from our governments, and even more tempting for governments like France and the United Kingdom to claim they will give their people what they want. In this case, however, what many of us want is to end this tragic farce of a final act in Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Yet to allow for any positive outcome from the situation, we must accept what we are—sitting this one out, a nation of unwilling cheerleaders.

Alex R. Konrad ’11, a former associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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