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Reese Schonfeld

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Libya: It's All Over But the Doubting

Posted: 10/05/11 12:53 PM ET

It's more than six months since the United Nations declared the airspace over Libya to be a "no-fly zone" and authorized Member States "to take all necessary measures... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack from the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya..." That seemed to me to authorize the NATO air attacks on Gaddafi's military forces surrounding Benghazi who were threatening the massacre of that city's civilian population. The air attacks worked, and Gaddafi's forces retreated.

It did not seem to me that such attacks would be sufficient to drive Gaddafi from power. So, I wrote in April that the war in Kosovo had ended only after NATO and the US had:

Bombed and destroyed much of Belgrade's infrastructure, including, according to Wikipedia, "bridges, military facilities, official government facilities and factories." Among the targets were "power plants, water plants, and the government broadcasting TV tower.

At the time I wrote the piece, NATO was claiming that its air strikes had been aimed only at carefully selected targets; Tripoli was largely unscathed, while Misrata was being destroyed by Gaddafi's artillery and mortars. I suggested that in order to win the war, that NATO must inflict pain upon those who support Gaddafi, civilian or not.

In May, General's top military commander, Gen. Sir David Richards, said that Gaddafi "could remain clinging to power unless NATO broadened its bombing pockets to include the country's infrastructure."

A week later, the G8 announced in Paris that any settlement in Libya must include Gaddafi's removal, and said that despite the 90 day deadline of the UN authorization, military operations would continue "as long as necessary".

Later that week, NATO air strikes on Tripoli began. John Burns reported in The New York Times that the attacks "caused thunderous explosions and fireballs that leapt high into the night sky [causing] people and neighborhoods a mile or more away to cry out in alarm... 'We thought it was the day of judgment,' one enraged Libyan said." At the same time, NATO spokespersons at press briefings assured reporters that civilians were not targeted but, if any were injured, it was in error. Time after time, press conference after press conference, reporters asked spokespersons if NATO was acting within its UN mandate. Time after time, bombing after bombing, NATO stuck to its story.

Now, five months later, NATO is still bombing Gaddafi loyalists in a final effort to achieve victory for the Libyan rebels. Just last week, Reuters reported that a "foray by the former rebels, backed by a heavy bombardment by NATO war planes, brought them to a traffic circle more than a mile from the city center." This is tactical bombing, far from what had been authorized by the UN five months ago. A Gaddafi spokesperson told Reuters "that NATO bombings in Surt are killing hundreds of people."

Gaddafi spokesmen do not necessarily speak the truth about casualties, but there is no question that some civilians have died from NATO bombings. There is no doubt that Western mercenaries have helped train and tactically advise rebel forces, and there is no question about NATO supplying arms to the rebels. Now the war is winding down, but there is no doubt that the Qaddafi forces would've triumphed if it had not been for NATO's intervention.

The only doubts are about what will happen next. Will Gaddafi's rule be replaced by democracy, by Islamic theocracy or by tribal rivalry? Can Libya remain a united country? Today's New York Times quotes Zohra al-Tayef, a counselor at Dawn of Freedom, a still deserted school in Tripoli, as saying that "teachers would have to undo years of efforts by the former government to sew divisions between tribes and regions." I'm sure the United Nations did not consider all these possibilities before authorizing NATO "to [in Libya] take all necessary measures... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas." Otherwise, Zohra al-Tayef would not have said:

"May God let the right side win," adding, "We don't even know what the right side is."

I doubt that the UN or NATO really knows what the right side is either.