Forces loyal to Libyan dictator Moammar Qadhafi have reportedly seized the strategic town of Ajdabiyah, as the G8 rejected calls for a no-fly zone. The town was the rebels’ last line of defense to stop the eastward advance of government troops to the rebel-held strongholds of Tobruq and the second city of Benghazi.
Qadhafi’s advances are alarming human rights advocates and supporters of the country’s pro-democracy protesters.
Even if the regime triumphs militarily, some observers believe it has suffered a fatal blow.
“The idea that all he’s got to do is defeat the opposition in Benghazi and everything will return to normal — I’m not entirely sure that’s a view that I would subscribe to,” said Middle East analyst David Hartwell. “I think there are serious question-marks about the long-term survivability of his regime… he is going to be faced with a pretty prolonged and major insurgency.”
But the prospect of a Qadhafi victory is prompting fresh calls for foreign intervention.
The Arab world’s democratic upsurge is one of the world’s few game-changing events, writes Larry Diamond, director of Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. But the region’s autocrats will be emboldened and democracy deferred if Qadhafi triumphs, he argues, making the crisis in Libya a “defining moment” for the US in the Middle East and for President Barack Obama:
This is not Hungary in 1956. There is no one standing behind Qadhafi —not the Soviet Union then, not the Arab League now, not even the entirety of his own army…. Qadhafi is the kind of neighborhood bully that Slobodan Milosevic was. And he must be met by the same kind of principled power. For America to do less than that now—less than the minimum that the Libyan rebels and the Arab neighbors are requesting—would be to shrink into global vacillation and ultimately irrelevance. If Barack Obama cannot face down a modest thug who is hated by most of his own people and by every neighboring government, who can he confront anywhere?
The current upsurge has killed the myths of Arab exceptionalism and of democracy as a Western export, writes Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic.
“Democracy, for these protesting peoples, is no longer defined, or tarnished, by its largely Western provenance. This is a milestone,” he writes.
He is dismissive of arguments that President Obama is reluctant to intervene in Libya for fear of tarnishing the authentic, home-grown character of the protests.
“They must do it on their own, but we must have their backs,” he argues. But he is fearful that the Obama administration lacks the political will to intervene and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, quoting a leading figure in the administration to make the case:
If anything testifies to the U.S. capacity for influence, it is the extent to which the perpetrators kept an eye trained on Washington and other Western capitals as they decided how to proceed. … The real reason the United States did not do what it could and should have done to stop genocide was not a lack of knowledge or influence but a lack of will. Simply put, American leaders did not act because they did not want to.
“I have taken those wise sentences from ‘A Problem from Hell,’’, Wieseltier writes, “Samantha Power’s sad, great study of earlier American failures to act against mass-murdering tyrants.”
Qadhafi’s survival “would signal to autocrats that violent resistance is the wisest path,” said the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman. “This would shift the momentum in the Middle East and greatly spur the new backlash.”