The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
And Now for a Real Slaughter
Published on August 16, 2011

I have not written in this space on Libya, and the Western intervention therein, since March 22—just days after some $350 million worth of U.S. cruise missiles commenced the NATO campaign against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. That is nearly five months ago, in a war that was supposed to be over in days, not weeks. I have been content instead to merely watch as all the predictions I made came true. And they all have.

So why write again now? We are at a tender spot in this war. Over this past weekend it appears from press reports that rebel forces have seized reasonably firm control of Zawiya. Zawiya is the first town to the east of the Tunisian border, and it is a supply and transportation hub serving Tripoli. Rebel control of this strategic spot puts the regime in a kind of vise, an observation so obvious that it has been repeatedly made even by journalists in recent days—if you take my point. Anyone can see that the regime is in a vise by the fact that some of its principals are defecting, including reportedly one of its intelligence chiefs.

Now, in a set-piece military situation of the sort described by textbooks concerning Europe, one might expect that at a certain point the regime will simply surrender to its adversaries after enough military pressure and a consequent sufficiency of humble introspection on the part of the besieged have been applied. That is very unlikely to happen in Libya.

For all the brutality of European wars, in reasonably modern times these wars were fought against the background of certain rules. It was possible, sometimes at least, to surrender with the expectation that one would not be slaughtered. This made an enormous amount of sense. If you don’t give your enemy an honorable way out, then everybody suffers from fighting to the last man on the losing side. Given what has happened in Libya, and more importantly the fact that Libya remains to a considerable extent a tribal society, no such expectation is warranted. Qaddafi, like Bashar al-Assad in Syria and President Saleh in Yemen, have nowhere to go in defeated retirement.

There are rules in places like Libya, but they are different from the rules applied in Europe in recent centuries. The main rule when one tribe or one tribal confederacy conquers another is that the defeated party is politically, socially, economically and, often to some extent, literally decapitated. The defeat must be total, unmistakable and irreparable. That is the best way, indeed, in many cases the only way, to make sure that the rank-and-file of the defeated group will not find some way to rise up again in revenge.

Now what does this mean in the Libyan case? It means that if the rebels centered in Benghazi are going to overthrow by force of arms the Qaddafi regime, they are going to have to fight for Tripoli, possibly down to the last square block of the regime’s stronghold. Qaddafi and his tribal loyalists and allies will not surrender peaceably. There is therefore going to be, quite possibly, a crimsoned slaughter of the civilian population of Tripoli.

I do not know this for certain, but neither did the Obama Administration know for certain five months ago that there was going to be a slaughter in Benghazi. There are reasons for thinking that the likelihood of the slaughter in Benghazi was far lower than the likelihood of a slaughter coming soon in Tripoli. Qaddafi may have thought back then that just the threat of mass violence could dissipate the rebellion, or weaken it fatally. Arabic is very good for threat making, and Arabs over the years have become masters at using language as votive acts. (There is a long tradition, just by the way, of leaders hiring poets to curse their enemies. There is as a result a whole genre of Arabic literature of this sort. And to those familiar with the Hebrew Bible, it will occur that this is not just an Arab hobby, but one practiced widely in the ancient Near East as well, as the used-to-be-very-well-known story of Balak and Bilaam attests.) Westerners eavesdropping on this internal conversation frequently take what is being said much too literally.

At any rate, as I say, the likelihood of a very bloody fight for Tripoli is high. Note that the Benghazi-centered rebels are not threatening anything like what Qaddafi threatened them with some months ago. That is not a good sign in this context; it is a very bad sign.

NATO is not in a position on the ground to do anything about it. NATO, fighting without the United States, has not been in a position to do very much about anything, which raises a point I will follow up just below. Clearly, the rebels who might be soon advancing on Tripoli do not recognize a clear distinction between civilians and combatants. Tribal rules say that all adult males are fair game. Given the widely available military technology of our time, however, and the Libyans’ lack of training in using that technology surgically, it is very unlikely that women and children will remain safe regardless of traditional prohibitions against harming them.

If the Obama Administration intervened in the first place to prevent mass murder against Libyan civilians in Benghazi—and on this point I take the Administration at its word—what will it do to prevent mass murder against Libyan civilians in Tripoli? Will NATO forces now suddenly switch sides, and begin suppressing the military activities of the Benghazi rebels it has been supporting and trying to build up for the past five months? That would be logically consistent in terms of the way the Administration does its moral reasoning; it is also completely unthinkable under present circumstances.

So perhaps the Administration and its NATO allies will try instead to simply persuade the rebels not to be brutal when the triumphal end of their campaign comes into sight (assuming it does). If they succeed in that task, highly unlikely though it is, the result will be to further prolong the war and muddle the possibility of a definitive endpoint. That would be inane, if not insane.

I don’t really know what they will do. I can’t wait to find out. All I know is that when a government engages in military activity on the basis of a nonsensical premise, there is a price to be paid always down the road. We are now pretty much down the road.

* * *

Finally, as I promised, there is NATO and its performance to be assessed. NATO has not impressed in the Libya campaign. Without the United States taking the lead, the NATO allies have been hard-pressed to maintain even a modest operational tempo in the air war. So difficult has it been to maintain even an ineffective campaign that dissension and hints of de facto surrender have been lately in the air. Some weeks ago the Italian government began hinting that perhaps some sort of compromise solution, with Qaddafi still in country and possibly even in power, might be worked out. The Italians may have had certain commercial interests in mind that they wished to preserve, but in any event this sort of proposal amounts to surrender in so many words. One even heard such noises, though not at a high official level, in London and Paris. Not a good optic for the world’s strongest and most benign military alliance.

The best thing that one can say about NATO’s actions in Libya is that they have not yet been a complete failure. But they certainly have done nothing useful for the image of NATO as a deterrent to bad behavior worldwide, which suggests that we may now have more of it. In the Balkans, perhaps. Or maybe from the Russians, at a time and place of their choosing. A superpower and its associates are essentially in the protection business. If it appears that the superpower either cannot or will not provide protection, then its stock falls and the stock of its rivals rises. That’s just the way things are. The moral reasoning of the well intentioned can do nothing about it.

A last note, if I may. Muammar Qaddafi and his associates will not go down without a fight, and the fight that they are capable of mounting may not be limited to Tripoli and environs. I do not see the intelligence traffic anymore, so I don’t know what the U.S. government’s estimate is of how much damage the remnants of the Libyan terror infrastructure can do. But I can assume, I think, that the estimate is not “nothing.” If Qaddafi has a way of reaching out and slapping us as he himself hits the turf, I suspect he will use it. American interests and personnel, especially abroad (possibly especially in places like Aviano Air Base in Italy), may be entering a notably dangerous period. Guys, look out for large green books with bombs inside.