A Message to Gaddafi’s Loyalists

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The international community is finally beginning to coalesce around something like a strategy for Libya. The Obama Administration is talking about sanctions, there’s a move to freeze the Gaddafi family’s international assets, and proposals to blockade Tripoli.

These are all excellent ideas, and need immediate action. But they won’t stop the Libyan strongman: he has endured sanctions and isolation in the past, and that was when he had an entire country to run. Now, with eastern Libya effectively out of his talons, he has fewer mouths to feed. More to the point, he seems determined to scuttle the ship of state rather than hand it over to the rebels.

So the challenge for the global community is to severely limit his ability to do harm to his own people. A high priority has to be imposition of a no-fly zone over western Libya, to prevent Gaddafi from using his jets and gunships against the rebels, or fly in more mercenaries. It won’t be easy to organize this. The UN is leery about no-fly zones: it’s worth remembering that it was the U.S. and not the UN that imposed the no-fly zone over much of Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.

It’s time for one of the Libya’s European neighbors, France or Italy, to step up to the plate. It’s easy enough for President Nicolas Sarkozy ro fire verbal broadsides in the direction of Tripoli, and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to express anxiety over a possible influx of Libyan refugees on Italian shores. But which one of them will have the courage to put their planes in the air over Libya, risking dogfights with Gaddafi’s jets or his antiaircraft batteries?

While these risks are parsed and debated (and let’s hope the Europeans don’t take their usual sweet time about it) important messages need to be sent to the people around Gaddafi — specifically the military commanders still loyal to him and the mercenaries who are fighting on his dime.

They (at least those not already guilty of slaughtering innocents) need to be offered carrots and sticks: amnesty if they ditch the dictator right away, or war-crimes trials if they stick be his side. Gaddafis pilots and naval commanders should be told they can bolt, with their planes and ships, to Malta or Lampedusa. His tank commanders should be encouraged to disable their tanks before fleeing.

If history is any judge, this will go one of two ways: either somebody close to Gaddafi will kill or imprison him and begin to negotiate with the rebels, or the strongman will keep fighting to the last. The world has a role, small thought it may be, in determining the outcome.