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It's time to get tough with Libya

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

President Obama pledged that "the entire world is watching" the horror in Libya, but watching isn't nearly enough. There is much more that world leaders - beginning with Obama - urgently must say and do.

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The world's censure means nothing to Col. Moammar Gaddafi, the dictator who vows to die rather than surrender the power he has held for four decades. At this point, the long-running debate about whether Gaddafi is mostly diabolical or mostly deranged is irrelevant. Despite his incoherent ramblings, he clearly is fighting not just for power but for his life.

The forces still allied with Gaddafi - his sons, parts of the military establishment, the mercenaries he has imported from other African countries - know that they are fighting for their lives, too. They have opened fire with heavy weapons against unarmed protesters. They have trained sniper fire on peaceful funeral processions. They have terrorized urban neighborhoods with random gunfire designed to make people cower in their homes rather than join the uprising. If Gaddafi's forces are defeated, the people's retribution will be definitive and brutal.

I should say when Gaddafi's forces are defeated, because ultimately the tyrant is playing a losing hand. He's playing it skillfully, though, having managed to establish a relatively secure bastion in Tripoli. His message to the brave rebels who now control the eastern part of the country is: Come and get me.

Gaddafi appears to still control many of the country's military assets. Ragtag bands of insurgents are no match for modern jet fighters or helicopter gunships or naval vessels that can bombard coastal population centers from miles offshore. Eventually, the people will surely win. But it is likely that thousands have already died - and it is abundantly clear that Gaddafi, even in a losing cause, is prepared to commit murder on a genocidal scale.

Gaddafi seems to have calculated that the longer he can drag out the conflict - and demonstrate that he still commands the capital and a potent, if diminished, military force - the more likely it becomes that he can find some way to survive.

That's where Obama and other world leaders come in. The immediate aim should be to separate Gaddafi from as much of his military strength as possible.

On Wednesday, in his first extended remarks on the crisis, Obama warned that "the Libyan government has a responsibility to refrain from violence." Those words, while correct, were far too weak. Obama should state plainly that we no longer consider Gaddafi's regime to be the legitimate government of Libya and that the dictator must immediately step down.

This will not have the slightest impact on Gaddafi, of course. But the message isn't for the Mad Colonel, it's for the military officers - the pilots of his warplanes and commanders of his warships - who must decide whether to follow his orders. They need to be told, in no uncertain terms, that if they side with Gaddafi, they will suffer the consequences.

And those consequences need to be spelled out. A chorus of world leaders should make clear that those who commit war crimes, such as firing on civilians, will be held personally accountable. If the avenging mob doesn't get them, international justice will.

The United States should lead NATO in immediately declaring a no-fly zone for Gaddafi's military aircraft and announcing that Libyan airspace is being monitored for violations. You wouldn't attempt to enforce such a ban immediately. The idea, again, should be to influence those who must choose whether to follow Gaddafi's orders.

By radio, television and the Internet, the United States and its allies should blanket Libya with the message that the Gaddafi regime has forfeited any right to legitimacy. Libyans should have no doubt about where we stand.

Such actions will anger the leaders of autocratic regimes that have been reliable allies of the West, such as Saudi Arabia. The Chinese government may not be pleased at such "interference," and the Russians may not be thrilled, either. But Gaddafi is a special case, as anyone who has seen his recent appearances can attest. The umbrella? The rambling, delusional speeches about how the protesters are on drugs? The vow to kill or be killed? This man is either a psychopath or a sociopath, but not a statesman.

Unambiguous, muscular words and credible threats are the least we can do for the people of Libya. Even by that low standard, we are falling woefully short.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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