How Food Could Determine Libya's Future

Ongoing shortages could leave the rebels too weak to topple Qaddafi, but the U.S. may be in a position to help

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As Libya's protesters-turned-rebels fight a series of hard battles with forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi, the United States -- and the much of the world -- struggles to find a meaningful response to the conflict. U.S. lawmakers have proposed such aggressive options as enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya or arming anti-Qaddafi rebels, both of which the White House has kept on the table. Critics of these plans argue that they risk involving the U.S. in another military engagement. But there's another option that the U.S. could consider, one that might give anti-Qaddafi rebels crucial help while avoiding the messy complications of direct involvement: Send food.

Food shortages in eastern Libya, the largest rebel-controlled area, have reached dire levels. Fighting has left food stocks depleted and food supply chains in shambles. Around Benghazi, food prices have reportedly risen by 50 to 75 percent. Due to its poor suitability for agriculture, Libya imports the majority of its food, which has become largely impossible since fighting broke out. The United Nations-run World Food Program is attempting to alleviate the food shortage, but so far with little success. Last Thursday, a ship that the World Food Program had chartered to carry 1,000 tons of flour to Benghazi, the provisional capitol of the rebel leadership, abandoned the trip after reports of attacks by pro-Qaddafi aircraft in the area. As food runs out and the conflict drags on, eastern Libya's food crisis will only get worse. Qaddafi appears willing to use the shortage as a weapon against the rebels, reportedly blocking food from reaching the besieged rebel-held town of Zawiya.

It still appears unlikely that Qaddafi will step down on his own accord. If the rebels are to free Libya, it will probably mean taking Tripoli by force and toppling Qaddafi outright. Currently, rebels in eastern Libya are mustering an army -- mostly raw recruits and seized weapons -- which they may use to do just that. But Benghazi is just over 1,000 km, about 630 miles, from Tripoli. Defeating Gadaffi would require this irregular force to travel hundreds of miles across the Mediterranean coast, all the while supplying itself through what would likely be a series of battles along the Gulf of Sidra, Sirte, and then in Tripoli itself.

Warfare has changed much since Napoleon's Grande Armée marched across Europe, but one of the Little Corporal's maxims is just as true in Libya today as it was near Waterloo two centuries ago: armies march on their stomachs. The anti-Qaddafi rebels are no different. The push to Tripoli would require consistent access to -- amongst other things -- food supplies. While having adequate food alone would not be sufficient to take the capitol (they also need war materials, training, and transportation), it is an absolute necessity. And, right now, the rebels don't have enough. But we do.

The United States has the capacity and infrastructure to supply rebel-controlled eastern Libya with substantial amounts of food aid. These shipments could be transported directly into the rebel center of Benghazi, a major seaport with more than adequate facilities. The food aid would not only alleviate the emerging humanitarian crisis in eastern Libya -- an important effort in itself -- it would help the rebel cause. The shipments would boost the morale of rebel fighters and, more important, provide the supplies necessary to feed the newly formed army during any push towards Tripoli.

The U.S. may be unable or unwilling to supply Libya's rebels with everything they need to topple Qaddafi -- since protests began in Libya and before that in Egypt, President Obama has made clear that the grassroots Arab uprisings must remain grassroots and Arab, rather than being co-opted by the U.S. But we can supply food. Supplying Benghazi with food aid is a viable and meaningful policy option short of risking the military entanglement Obama appears determined to avoid. Whether or not Libya's revolution is ours to fight, it could well be ours to feed.

Photo by Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters