A diplomatic alternative to a deepening quagmire is now possible, and the opportunity should be seized. The suggestion this week by U.S. Gen. Carter Ham that American ground troops might enter the conflict in support of the Libyan rebels goes beyond the United Nations mandate and suggests that the politics of escalation are underway.
But the conditions of stalemate, and therefore negotiations, are present. The NATO intervention is protecting Benghazi for the moment. The anti-Qaddafi rebels are completely incapable of battlefield victory. The Qaddafi regime, while unpopular and unstable, can inflict massive damage if cornered. The situation calls for diplomatic intervention, seeking a cease-fire and talks towards a peaceful transition, including future elections.
The delegation to Libya this week, led by South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, was a starting point. After hours of discussion, Col. Qaddafi accepted a “roadmap” including political reforms “necessary for the elimination of the causes of the current crisis,” protection of African migrant workers, humanitarian assistance, and an immediate cease-fire. The African Union delegation next met with the anti-Qaddafi rebels who, pumped up by NATO backers, immediately rejected anything short of the removal of Qaddafi and his family. To follow the ill-trained, disorganized rebels into a battle for Tripoli would be absurd without exploring the alternatives.
The African Union mission included Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania, Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali, Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville, and Uganda's Foreign Minister Henry Oryem Okello. The five-strong panel was approved by the European Union. The initiative can expect support from the United Nations Security Council members who abstained on the vote to intervene militarily: Germany, Russia, China and India. Brazil and Turkey are active diplomatically as well.
The question is whether the U.S., France, and the UK intend to follow through on regime change at any cost, which would mean a white Western military intervention in an African quagmire of unknown cost and duration. UN resolution 1735, which authorizes a no-fly zone and “all measures” necessary to protect civilians, does not include regime change or U.S. troops on the ground. To stretch the meaning of the UN mandate will threaten the very coalition now tolerating the air strikes.
The African Union initiative received only internal mention in the pages of the mainstream media, as if Africans shouldn’t be meddling in Africa. On the other hand, Gen. Ham’s prediction of American troops on the ground was widely publicized as a trial balloon. Whether intended or not at first, escalation is often perceived as necessary to avoid defeat, and so the treadmill continues. It may well be possible to kill or overthrow Qaddafi, but then a NATO occupation would follow indefinitely. Or Qaddafi is beyond military reach, in which case the bloodbath across Libya will mount. Causing a greater bloodbath to “protect civilians” will not serve human rights or the interests of the United States in a post-imperial foreign policy. That is why an attempt at negotiations must not be dismissed as useless. With the full force of the US government – not to mention Russia, China, India, Germany, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, and- who knows? - Egypt, a diplomatic solution is possible.