If United States Doesn’t Make Qaddafi Go, Who Will?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

In the aftermath of the successful Osama bin Laden operation, President Barack Obama has come out looking strong and determined on national security. Where the administration has often been accused of dithering, the narrative, at least for now, has shifted.

Unfortunately, though it’s unlikely America’s enemies are getting the message. If anything, embattled autocrats such as Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi are likely to use the Western media’s wall-to-wall coverage of bin Laden’s death to push even more aggressively against their opponents.

The death of bin Laden has turned attention away from an apparently deteriorating situation in Libya. A son and three grandchildren of Qaddafi were reportedly killed by NATO airstrikes last weekend. If Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Arab, was in fact killed, it could mean an even more vengeful regime response. Ahead of the funerals in Tripoli, regime forces renewed attempts to take rebel-held Misrata, which has been under siege for weeks.

Since the Libyan government announced the four deaths, however, the reports have remained unconfirmed. Some rebel leaders have suggested the deaths have been manufactured to generate sympathy for the regime.

The Libyan government is treating Saif al-Arab’s purported death as a propaganda coup, arguing that NATO has violated its mandate. “What we have now is the law of the jungle,” government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said. “What is happening in Libya has nothing to do with the protection of civilians.”

For its part, NATO has intensified airstrikes on military infrastructure in Tripoli. Any hope for a negotiated resolution to the conflict seems further away than ever.

The bottom line is that nothing Qaddafi says or does can be trusted by the rebels or the international community. And without trust, negotiations are impossible. Increasingly, the conflict in Libya looks like it will be a fight to the very end. If Qaddafi refuses to cede power, then the only other options are capture or assassination, either at the hands of his own people, rebel forces or NATO.

According to the March 17 UN Security Council resolution, Qaddafi may very well be a legitimate target. NATO has been striking at military targets and pro-regime forces responsible for killing civilians. It is unclear why Qaddafi would be exempt from these categories. The UN resolution, after all, authorizes “all necessary measures” — short of foreign occupation — to protect civilians.

It is becoming increasingly evident that as long as Gadhafi is in charge, civilians are not and will not be safe. They continue to perish in large numbers at the hands of regime loyalists in Misrata and other cities.

Unfortunately, Western nations, particularly the United States, have been sending mixed messages to the Libyan people and the international community. Obama has insisted on the “limited” scope of the Libyan operation while, at the same time, insisting that Qaddafi must go. But if he won’t, then who will make him go, and when?

Critics of the Libya intervention will complain of mission creep. And they will be right. The harsh reality, though, is that mission creep may be precisely what’s needed to conclude the mission. Coming off its watershed success in the war on terror, the Obama administration has the opportunity to re-assert itself in Libya and redouble its efforts to force Qaddafi out of power.