A Just War, and an Unfinished One

Recognizing Libya's rebels was the right move by the United States and its allies -- but it's not the only one they have to make.

A good outcome is still possible in Libya; the decision this morning by a coalition of Western and Middle Eastern states to recognize the transitional government in Benghazi is an important step forward. But success will require patience and persistence from NATO, creativity from the United States, and pragmatism from the rebels. And there is good reason right now to worry about each of those things.

In order to picture the current state of the military campaign in Libya, imagine three lines representing the will and capacity of, respectively, Muammar al-Qaddafi's security forces, the rebels, and NATO. Each line has a different slope, and they will eventually cross. The good news is that Qaddafi's capacity is almost certainly diminishing. A senior NATO official tells me that "60 to 70 percent of Qaddafi's military stocks are destroyed," while "economic sanctions are biting as gasoline diminishes daily in Tripoli." U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence claim that the rebels' attacks on the main pipeline from the main oil refinery at Zawiyah* has sharply reduced Qaddafi's access to fuel, while financial sanctions have prevented him from securing the funds to buy oil on the international energy market. Nevertheless, Qaddafi has proved much more resilient than most people expected. His grip on Tripoli is not threatened, and the stream of high-level desertions he suffered early in the conflict has slowed to a trickle.

The rebels have all the will in the world, but the growth in their military ability has been frustratingly slow. Despite optimistic bulletins from the front that the war will be won in a matter of weeks, their own leaders concede that they're not remotely ready for a direct assault on Tripoli, which in any case would result in massive casualties. Unless the Qaddafi regime implodes, the rebels will have to depend for a long time to come on NATO. But can they?

Four months into the aerial campaign -- already six weeks longer than the 1999 air war over Kosovo -- NATO's arms inventory is running down, albeit far less dramatically so than Qaddafi's. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asserted on July 11 that "a lot of these countries" could run through their stock of missiles within 90 days. And patience has begun to dwindle along with stockpiles. Though France has taken the most bellicose posture of any of the allies, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet recently said that the time had come for the rebels to "get round the table" and negotiate with the regime. This sounds like a sharp change in tone, but when I asked a French diplomat about his country's policy he pointed me to comments by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe on July 11 reiterating the position that Qaddafi can have no place in a future Libyan government. France, he insisted, remained resolute: The National Assembly just voted 482 to 27 in favor of continuing with the bombardment.

American officials are plainly worried about the diminishing line of will. A State Department official pointed out that Qaddafi has a genius for exploiting difference among the allies. At today's meeting in Istanbul of the Libya Contact Group -- an ad-hoc assembly of representatives from NATO and Middle Eastern country and international organizations that convened regularly since April to chart a course forward with the conflict -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strove to keep the alliance "speaking with one voice," according to this official.

But what will that voice be? Will it be, "Keep fighting until the rebels win, or Qaddafi flees?" Qaddafi has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Where would he flee to? Zimbabwe? Marina Ottaway, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment, says, "We have to accept a solution which is not exactly what we had in mind to begin with." In this scenario, NATO would keep up the bombardment while U.N. officials and rebel leaders work out a political solution in which Qaddafi leaves power, but not Libya. Qaddafi just might accept such an outcome; Juppe, in Istanbul, said that "The Libyan regime is sending messengers everywhere, to Turkey, to New York, to Paris" seeking a negotiated solution.

Could the rebels live with it? A rebel leader whom I heard speak last month recalled growing up in Benghazi seeing bodies swing from lampposts. Neither she nor her colleagues were prepared to sit around a table with the monster who was responsible. And how can they possibly trust that Qaddafi would sit quietly inside his compound? What about his sons? Would they sit there with him? But if the only alternative is six more months of war, the rebels may have to sign on to such a plan, if only to preserve the NATO alliance which they can not currently live without.

What if Qaddafi lies and dithers, as in all likelihood he will, and the talks go nowhere? Then NATO will have to keep inflicting damage, and the rebels will have to get better. And this is where the United States comes in. The government in Benghazi, known as the Transitional National Council (TNC), has asked the allies for $3 billion in order to pay salaries and to buy military supplies, food, medicine and other basics. With sufficient funding, the rebels could not only improve their military capacity but, just as importantly, demonstrate to the Libyan people that they have the ability to deliver services and run a government, as Qaddafi himself never did.

The U.S. government has frozen $30 billion in Libyan assets, and would like to divert some of that money to the rebels. Today’s decision to formally recognize the TNC as the legitimate government of Libya will make it much easier to do so. But the American diplomat I spoke to noted that political recognition is not the same as legal recognition; the TNC may not qualify as a recognizable government according to State Department criteria. What's more, even legal recognition might not, by itself, permit the assets to be unfrozen. "We're really grappling with it right now," he says.

But the problem may be political as well as legal. "We're paranoid about the possibility of Islamic infiltration," says Marina Ottaway. For months, critics of the decision to bomb Libya, as well as many on the right, have wrung their hands over the rebels in Benghazi, saying, "We don't know who they are." Now, after extensive reporting, we know who they are: people from all walks of life, including a great many professionals, who loathe Qaddafi and yearn for a better life -- and yes, some Islamists, too. Behind the NATO-enforced cordon sanitaire in front of Benghazi, a chaotic laboratory of democracy has sprung up. Benghazi has 400 non-government organizations and 40 or so proto-parties. There are endless meetings, debates, committees. The Tripoli Task Force, a TNC-appointed committee of independent experts, makes plans -- quite serious, specific plans -- for Day One of the post-Qaddafi world. Whatever its inevitable shortcomings, this is a struggle which undoubtedly deserves the support -- not just moral, but also financial -- of the West.

The critics of humanitarian intervention who say that the outcome is likely to be messier and more protracted than its proponents imagine are right. You have to be prepared to live with the unforeseen consequences of your acts. NATO and the United States thus have to stay the course not only to deliver the Libyan people from Qaddafi but also to demonstrate that such interventions are not exercises in imperial hubris -- or "wars of whim," as my Foreign Policy colleague Stephen Walt mockingly puts it. The imperative of preventing mass slaughter in Benghazi was reason enough to act -- though Walt writes breezily of "the fear of a possible 'bloodbath,'" as if this were a flimsy pretext seized upon by reckless adventurers. But with hundreds now dying on both sides, it would be grotesque to declare the effort a success if Qaddafi holds onto power. The war in Kosovo succeeded -- insofar as it succeeded -- not because it halted ethnic cleansing, but because it freed Kosovars from Serbian control.

A post-Qaddafi Libya will be a mess, as post-Milosevic Kosovo has been. But it just might be a very inspiring mess. And the Obama administration and its NATO allies have it in their power to help deliver such an outcome.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported that Libya's rebels controlled the rifinery at Zawiyah.


Terms of Engagement

Bashir's Choice

The brutal means that the Sudanese president has used to keep his country together have instead blown it apart in the most chaotic way possible.

South Sudan is being baptized in blood. On Saturday, July 9, when the south formally declares its independence from Sudan, civilians in the disputed border region of Southern Kordofan will be scrambling to survive a sustained campaign of aerial bombardment. A report by an aid worker in the Nuba Mountains of Southern Kordofan described a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" carried out by "troops, artillery, tanks, and machine gun carriers" as well as Antonov bombers. Since Khartoum has blocked the United Nations, NGOs, and the media from the region, it is impossible to know how many civilians have been killed in recent weeks, though aid workers cited in the New York Times put the number at "hundreds." And hundreds more were killed last month in Abyei, another border state.

You might think that Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for carrying out genocide in the western region of Darfur, has decided to violently nullify the January referendum in which the people of the south voted overwhelmingly for independence. But that's almost certainly not the case. A recent report by the International Crisis Group speculates that Bashir has launched the onslaught in order to improve his negotiating position on a range of issues between north and south, including the drawing of borders and the division of oil revenues. This is Bashir's idea of statecraft. As Sudan scholar Gérard Prunier once wrote, the regime's "policy and political philosophy since it came to power in 1989 has kept verging on genocide in its general treatment of the national question in Sudan."

The essential story of Sudan over the last several decades is the story of the regime against the people. This is, of course, a perfectly familiar African story, but what makes Sudan's story distinctive is the way a small, homogenous class of riverine Arabs has used massive and barely controlled violence to maintain control over an immense and vastly diverse country. In Darfur, it has succeeded. In the south, it has failed; and on Saturday's independence day the beleaguered people of the south will explode with euphoria before settling down to face an extremely grim future, for South Sudan will be one of the world's poorest and least-developed countries.

It did not have to be this way, and a remarkable new book of essay and photographs titled We'll Make Our Homes Here: Sudan at the Referendum offers a powerful reminder that that is so. Tim McKulka, a staff photographer for the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), took the pictures, compiled and edited the essays, and somehow -- this may be the most impressive part -- persuaded UNMIS itself to publish the book. McKulka's pictures show Sudan in all its topographical and human variety: deserts, mountains, rivers, and the oil-boom capital of Khartoum; nomadic cattle-herders, Arab traders, and Nuer tribesmen with ritual scarification. Sudan is a vast migratory space -- at almost 1 million square miles, the world's 10th-largest country and the largest in Africa -- which tribes have crisscrossed over the centuries, depositing one layer of culture and habits atop another.

The book's 13 essays, most of them intensely personal and all written by Sudanese, are shot through with nostalgia for this densely layered past and for the vanished ethos of tolerance that allowed such varied peoples to live alongside one another. Leila Aboulela, an author and playwright, recalls the cosmopolitan Khartoum of her childhood in the 1960s: "The city was spacious and languid; close-knit and unconventional; a place to be innovative and adventurous." (Afghans who remember the Kabul of that time describe it in much the same language.) Abdalla Adam Khatir, a Darfuri journalist and activist, describes his days as a university student in the 1970s traveling from the Blue Nile to Port Sudan to the massifs of Kordofan. This act of discovery, he writes, "deepened my commitment to the notion of a Sudanese nation."  

There may be some glossing over of ugly realities here. The Sudanese have long been pittted against one another as well as against the state: Nuer tribesmen fight Dinka in the south; nomads fight pastoralists along the border. But politics matter, and those who have controlled Sudan have always used some variant of divide-and-rule. As historian Edward Thomas notes in a prefatory essay, 19th-century Ottoman rulers used the south as a source of slaves for the Egyptian army. British administrators later separated the country into ethnic zones in order to preclude the rise of nationalism. When Britain granted Sudan independence in 1956, the Christian south agreed to join with the Islamic north only on the condition that the country adopt a decentralized system; instead, Britain handed off its full colonial powers to a mercantile Arab regime in Khartoum. A campaign to forcibly Islamize the south provoked a civil war that lasted until a 1972 peace treaty. A new military ruler dissolved the south's autonomous government, setting off a new round of fighting in 1983. Two million people died before the two sides signed the 2005 agreement that set the stage for this year's referendum and independence. And as one war was winding down, a new one in Darfur, provoked by the same repressive policies and carried out with the same brutality, was starting up.

I cannot help thinking of India when I read this story. There is an obvious analogy between the bloodshed surrounding the hiving off of south from north and India's Partition, which led to the deaths of perhaps a quarter-million people as Muslims fled north to Pakistan and Hindus south to India. Sudan is suffering through a partition of its own. But there was nothing inevitable about the fratricide either at India's birth or at South Sudan's; both are a consequence of political choices. And in fact what actually strikes me is the contrast between the choices made by the two countries' post-colonial leaders. India's prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, horrified by the violent energies unleashed by Partition, went to enormous lengths to calm anti-Muslim feeling in India and to blunt calls to redraw state borders along linguistic lines. And when violence flared over the linguistic issue in 1955, Nehru gave in, recognizing that India could survive as a diverse country only by granting more regional and cultural autonomy.

Multiethnic states like Sudan are not doomed to failure. India is just one example; Indonesia is another. It all depends on political leadership. Of course, the problem is harder in diverse states ruled by a minority tribe, such as Sudan or Syria. Leaders must either bring others into the circle of power or practice endless repression. Bashir has made the latter choice; so, too, has the Assad family in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad is now discovering the corollary to this choice: As repression provokes resistance, the regime must keep ratcheting up the level of brutality in order to survive.

If you're the president of a country as big as Sudan, you can sustain your rule by letting go of a piece of the country you can no longer successfully repress. But you cannot sustain the idea of the country. John Garang, the southern leader who had signed the 2005 agreement with the Bashir regime and died soon thereafter in a plane crash, had fought for the vision of a single Sudan with a mixed leadership. That sounds almost laughably naive today. Jacob J. Akol, a southern journalist, writes in We'll Make Our Homes Here that while the myth of Sudan is "an Islamic and culturally Arab nation in the heart of Africa," the reality is "a people trying to break away from a forced and unfair unity about which they were never consulted." Nothing but force holds Sudan together.

Leafing through the volume, I was struck by a picture of a giant parabola on Khartoum's skyline -- a new oil company headquarters. That hadn't been there when I visited in 2004. Oil revenue has made Sudan one of Africa's fastest-growing states; the fight over the border regions has much to do with access to that oil wealth. But while it will transform Khartoum's skyline, oil wealth will not solve Sudan's problems: By increasing corruption and further concentrating wealth and power in the center, it will only further alienate the millions who live along the periphery. Bashir has a genius for survival, and he may outlast his enemies; but Sudan, as a country, will fail.