Tracing Muammar el-Qaddafi’s rule and outlining the social conditions that made his rise to power possible, Robert Bolton’s essay “A Revolt in the Desert” also covers in some detail the course of the rebellion in Libya and the U.S.’s military involvement.
In the forty-two years Muammar el-Qaddafi has ruled Libya, he has adopted an eclectic range of guises to the Western world: head of a revolutionary coup d’état, pan-Arab (and African) ideologue, exporter of terrorism, Libyan nationalist, buffoonish dictator, and after the Bush administration‟s invasion of Iraq, conciliatory tyrant. One mantle he has never had to assume, however, is former head of state. With the recent Libyan uprising in a region seeing the overthrow and destabilization of the political status quo for numerous states, Qaddafi is facing a serious challenge to his power. With the added intervention of the United States of America and numerous European powers, the situation has become a volatile gamble of guessing which factors will place who in control of Libya’s future.
Qaddafi rules a country marred by a colonial history under Italian rule, and following independence, a monarchy so unpopular it was overthrown within two decades during the radical fervor of the late 1960s. After the monarchy’s overthrow, Qaddafi quickly established himself as suzerain and began using Libya’s immense oil wealth to enrich himself, his family, and loyalists to the regime. As a result, very few, if any, legitimate democratic institutions were allowed to develop. Over the next few decades, Qaddafi engaged in long running conflict with the neighboring state of Chad, and shortly before that conflict ended, had numerous military sites bombed by the U.S. following a Libyan-planned explosion that killed two U.S. servicemen in a Berlin discotheque. Following the invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, however, Qaddafi began to adopt a somewhat more moderate stance and agreed to open for inspection his WMD program.
The recent uprising is generally agreed by commentators to have been a long-time coming. Unemployment, political suppression, a generally stagnant culture, and the opportunities presented by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have all been offered as potential reasons for the current discontent. Ironically, both Egypt and Tunisia are generally recognized as having lower standards of living than their neighbor.
The uprising began in the eastern portion of the country, which Qaddafi has long neglected due to his own nomadic ties to the western, oil-rich part of Libya. The coordination for the rebellion is centered in Benghazi, the second largest city and port of Libya, and has generally been successful at limiting the number of human rights abuses occurring in the areas it has taken control of. It should be noted, however, some lynchings of dark-skinned Libyans misperceived as mercenaries working for Qaddafi have occurred. There has also been some questioning of the potential for Islamic radicalism within the rebel movement to develop due to the many unknown quantities operating in the rebels’ forces, but nothing conclusive has yet been determined.
At first, the rebels had major successes and made a push westward, reaching as far the city of Bin Jawad, located near the center of country. Because Libya is largely composed of desert and sparsely populated in the interior, the capture of coastal cities has become the most important factor strategically. Qaddafi then began a counteroffensive on March 6 and began to push the rebels back. One of the reasons Qaddafi has survived this long is that, unlike Tunisia or Egypt, Libya’s military is personally loyal to him and is willing to use a level of force not encountered in the successful uprisings. Qaddafi’s push made it almost to Benghazi and there was concern that the rebel-held city could be recaptured. The inter-national community had generally issued statements of condemnation towards Qaddafi, but these produced no significant effects. The push, however, appears to have been a motivating factor, and on March 17, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution with ten affirmations and five abstentions calling for the creation of a no-fly zone. Two days later, France launched attacks on military installations throughout the country, with the U.S. and United Kingdom following shortly afterward.
With the Western powers now involved, new questions have arisen. One of the most serious in the U.S. is whether ground forces will be sent to stabilize the situation. Polling of the American public seems generally supportive of involvement, but people remain hesitant to commit ‘boots on the ground’ after the recent experiences of Iraq and Afghani-stan. In President Obama’s speech on March 28, he described the situation thus, “I said that America’s role would be limited; that we would not put ground troops into Libya; that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation, and that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners.”
With this, the president has forfeited a commanding role of the situation and relocated the U.S. military to a position of support uncommon for most military operations with which it is involved. This should not be taken as an indication of American passivity or negligence, but it does redefine the U.S.’s role in Libya. It is a country that remains high on America’s watchlist for fears of radicalization, the security of oil reserves, humanitarian concerns, and the general question of whether or not Qaddafi can remain in power if there is not increased outside pressure. Whatever the intermediate events, Libya is a situation that will require significant commitment on the part of America and its Western allies for lasting change to occur.