How to Save Benghazi
By Robert Pape
The United States and much of the world are now moving to protect the large number of Libyan civilians who have risked their lives to oppose Muammar al-Qaddafi's brutal regime -- and they are right to do so. Indeed, Qaddafi's ability to repress the Libyan people stems largely from the vast amounts of money his regime has earned through the sale of oil. As the world's largest consumer of oil, the United States has a strong moral responsibility to act. Looking away from the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Libya would contradict America's democratic values and only fuel the belief that the United States would not lift even a finger to save Muslims, no matter how many were at risk -- handing al Qaeda a major propaganda coup.
The U.N. decision to use "all means necessary" to protect civilians in Libya is a crucial first step, but now is the time to decide on the actual military strategy to achieve this humanitarian mission. The essential goal over the next few weeks is to safeguard the vast numbers of Libyans who have risked their lives to oppose Qaddafi in Benghazi and other major cities along the eastern coast. At the moment, they are highly vulnerable to Qaddafi's ground forces: concentrations of tanks, heavy artillery, and troops that are reportedly less than 100 miles from Benghazi and could attack the city directly over the next few days -- and indirectly over the coming weeks and months by cutting off food and other basic necessities.
Accordingly, the strategy to safeguard Libyans in the East should emphasize three core steps.
First: Declare "a line in the sand" protecting Benghazi -- destroying any large number of Qaddafi's military vehicles and troops that concentrate and move to attack the city. This is a mission that America's precision-guided air power can decisively achieve with B-2, B-52, and other aircraft flying from the United States, Diego Garcia, and the airbase in Qatar. After suppressing any Libyan air defenses with cruise missile strikes, U.S. forces could drop joint direct attack munitions and other anti-armor precision weapons on Libyan government ground forces. Of course, if Qaddafi's forces do not attack the city, military action need not occur.
Second: Immediately begin massive economic shipments to Benghazi to give the ordinary people in eastern Libya the wherewithal to maintain themselves independently of any coercive pressure Qaddafi can bring to bear. Libya's coastal cities import 90 percent of their food and other basic necessities, and while they do have stockpiles, these will start running down in a matter of weeks. Economic shipments will take time to arrive and should begin now.
Third: Organize a broad international coalition for sustained protection operations similar to "Provide Comfort," the operation to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq in the 1990s. The purpose should be to provide a "protection zone" that would effectively prevent Libyan military strikes against commercial shipments from Europe into the ports of Benghazi and other cities along the eastern coast. This force should involve the militaries of Arab countries as well as the West.
This plan will sustain the people of eastern Libya without imposing regime change on Tripoli, invading Libya, or seizing its oil. It will also provide the core framework for a political transformation of Libya over time, with the West and the Arab world on the right side of history.
Robert A. Pape is director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and the author of Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War.
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