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.

The feud "offers a stark example of the challenges Libya will face in reconciling communities that found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict when Col. Gadhafi leaves power," wrote Wall Street Journal reporter Sam Dagher. "Already the fighting has fanned historic feuds and created new fault lines across the country." Of course, long after Qaddafi's forces were ejected from eastern Libya, that region remains largely peaceful. But that part of the country saw relatively brief fighting, and is currently under the leadership of a dubious but respected Transitional National Council; order did not succumb to lawlessness, violence did not turn neighbor against neighbor.

When violence proliferates, order is absent, and grievances accumulate, it is never difficult for armed young men to find other armed young men to blame. Their reasons for fighting can be legitimate, they can be proximate, or they can be wholly made-up (Misrata's appears to be some combination of the latter two). Qaddafi's death would risk imploding what remains of the country's leadership, leaving senior military officers suddenly rudderless and face with the difficult choice between continuing the fight against the rebels, joining them against whatever remained of the regime, or, more likely, turning on one another in a race for power.

It's possible that, in the case of Qaddafi's sudden death, someone loyal to him could step in; perhaps son and assumed successor Saif, perhaps a hard-liner, perhaps a more Western-friendly figure such as Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi. It's possible that the replacement leader could continue the status quo of fighting an unacknowledged stalemate against the rebels, or possible that he could declare a ceasefire and attempt to negotiate peace. But because Qaddafi so entrenched his rule, there are few, if any, people or institutions that could credibly step in to take over. The regime is fractured between moderates, hard-liners, and family members, each of which would likely compete for control.

But the greatest risk to a suddenly post-Qaddafi Libya may not even be at the national level; it may rest in the small-scale conflicts such as that consuming Misrata. A political battle between Saif Qaddafi and military intelligence director Abdullah Senussi, for example, could always be mediated. But the countless sparks of petty, irrational violence that so often accompany and perpetuate conflict cannot be resolved by a United Nations negotiator or a peace conference in Dubai. We can kill Qaddafi; the self-declared Bedouin leader moves frequently, but eventually a bomb will catch him. The question is whether we want to risk a nation of Misratas.