Q&A: Gadhafi's Last Stand

Yesterday, President Barack Obama indicated that Col. Muammar Gadhafi must "step down from power and leave," a sign of increasing international pressure on the leader accused of massacring Libyan people in the streets. Gadhafi's regime has maintained some control of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, while the rest of the country has fallen into rebel hands since protests began on Feb. 16. Those protesters were greeted with remarkable violence from the start, ordered by Gadhafi; Forces fired on a funeral procession and then bombed and strafed the civilian population with jet fighters.

While Gadhafi's regime weighs its few remaining options with the International Criminal Court watching the events in Libya unfold, TAP spoke to Brian Fishman, a foreign-policy expert at the New American Foundation, about what to expect in what may be Gadhafi's final days at the helm in Libya.

While leaders in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt resigned after relatively little bloodshed, Gadhafi seems poised to fight to the death. Does this present al-Qaeda an opportunity to play a role in the Libyan revolution and ensuing government that was apparently unavailable to the group in Tunisia and Egypt?

Despite Gadhafi's cynical effort to curry favor with the international community by blaming the current uprising on Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda has not played a role in the Libyan uprising. Nonetheless, there are reasons to worry that al-Qaeda and its allies may be able to take advantage of the chaos in Libya more than it has in Egypt or Tunisa. First, Libya does not have functional institutions like the army in Egypt or the bureaucracy in Tunisia. Thus, chaos is likely for a reasonably extended period even if Gadhafi abdicates, and that will give al-Qaeda types the ability to argue that democratic revolution is unlikely to bring substantive benefits.

Second, in the last three or four years, Libya has been a hotbed of jihadi recruitment, especially to participate in the Iraq War. There seem to be tribal or social networks in place that sympathize with al-Qaeda, and they could form the backbone of a renewed jihadi organization in Libya. (The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was a major danger in the 1990s.) Jihadis will always be on the fringe, but the fringe is a bit bigger in Libya today than elsewhere.

The International Criminal Court has announced an investigation into alleged war crimes by Gadhafi and his regime. What, if any, practical effect might an ICC investigation have on the embattled Gadhafi regime?

An ICC investigation is an excellent way to hold dictators accountable, but laying the groundwork for such an investigation today is somewhat dangerous. The international community's imperative today is to stop the bloodshed, which means convincing Gadhafi to abdicate. Announcing an ICC investigation is likely to have the opposite effect on Gadhafi and encourage him to fight until the bitter end because of the possibility of an international trial. A transparent accounting of Gadhafi's crimes is critical, but this announcement strikes me as coming too early -- and potentially being counterproductive as a result.

Gadhafi's most recent speeches prominently feature the West's thirst for oil. He has also seemed to concentrate his forces around strategic oil assets in the eastern part of the country. What role does oil play in the present struggle between Gadhafi's regime and rebels?

Gadhafi has few cards to play with the international community, but oil is one of them. By generating chaos near the oil fields, he hopes to apply pressure on the international community through increased prices and to seize the resources for the future. On the flip side, the rebels want to demonstrate that they can be responsible stewards of Libya's energy resources.

The African Union, the Arab League, the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have all been mentioned in discussions of a no-fly zone over Libya, as Gadhafi continues to execute airstrikes against civilians and rebels. What obstacles might obstruct swift action, and who is most likely to participate?

The U.N. and NATO are the most likely to implement a no-fly zone, but I think the chances are low in the short term, and with good reason. As U.S. Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates has stated, imposing a no-fly zone in Libya in practice means bombing anti-aircraft sites. This is not the later days of the Iraq no-fly mission. It would require killing Libyans, which holds the potential to discredit the rebellion. We should prepare our options for a no-fly zone, but most of the massacres in Libya are going to occur by ground forces.

Revolutions are usually ugly. The U.S. should not pretend that we can sanitize this.

Is there any hope that the present unrest in Libya might be resolved without further bloodshed? Is another civil war in Libya inevitable?

I think protracted violence is very likely unless the forces around Gadhafi decide he is not worth fighting for and defect. One potential role for the U.S. and international community at this point is to facilitate communication with military forces working for Gadhafi to urge them to defect. Sun Tzu said you never want to surround an enemy on four sides because its resolve will increase if there is nowhere to run. If you surround an enemy on three sides, some of its forces will run, weakening the whole and advancing the mission. That's the principle we need to apply in Libya today, though I'm skeptical this ends without substantially more bloodshed.