Plan to Kill Libya's Qaddafi Carries Dire Risks

What happens if NATO succeeds in targeting the Libyan leader?



NATO Joint Operations commander and U.S. admiral Samuel Locklear told a U.S. congressman last month that NATO is attempting to kill Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, reported on Friday. Rep. Mike Turner, a Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee, revealed the conversation to reporter Josh Rogin, confirming what many observers had long suspected about the U.S. and European air strikes. After all, NATO's bombs have fallen on, among others, the Bab al-Azizia military compound in Tripoli, which members of the Qaddafi family sometimes use as a home. But what happens if NATO's planes manage to kill the Libyan leader of four decades? And would his death really end the war that has now waged in Libya for four months, or would it only worsen it?

Qaddafi's Libya is not like most nations. Though civilization is ancient in the Mediterranean region we now call Libya, it has only existed as an independent nation for 59 years. Before 1951, that tract of North Africa had spent most of its history as part of some vast colonial possession stretching across the continent: Roman, Arab, Ottoman, and, for a brief and disastrous period, Italian. Historically, it had been divided into three districts, which at the time of unification were so disparate that King Idris created the world's first and only "federal monarchy" to try and rule them. When 27-year-old Qaddafi led the 1969 military coup, it was the birth of Libyan nationalism.

To say that Qaddafi has united Libya gives him too much credit; he has subjugated all of its people and regions simultaneously. But, after ruling Libya for two thirds of its history as a nation, the country and its leader have become deeply intertwined. This is especially true because of his unique leadership style, which combines patronage out of Qaddafi's oil-soaked wallet, personal efforts by Qaddafi to pit tribal and political influence-makers against one another, brutal oppression by security forces personally loyal to the Qaddafi family, and one of the most outsized cults of personality living today. Libya could surely survive without Qaddafi, but removing him from power too quickly and too forcefully could be a greater shock than this already violence-torn nation could endure. Some historians of the U.S. civil war cite the country's youth as a factor -- the nation had still not cemented a unified vision of itself, so was more prone to war between culturally distinct regions. At the time, the country was 84 years old, 25 more than Libya today.

It's not hard to find a worst-case example of what could happen if Qaddafi dies and leaves a vacuum both in the leadership he has dominated and in the order he has imposed for four decades. In Misrata, a city near Tripoli that has seen some of the worst and most sustained block-to-block fighting since the civil war began in February, an ancient and arbitrary tribal feud erupted not long after rebels finally forced out Qaddafi's forces. Long-held suspicion between an Arab community and a smaller, neighboring black community gew into outright hostility, sending many civilians fleeing -- and introducing ethnic violence to a city that had earlier shown no sign of it.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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