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If Libya Spins out of Control, ‘It Could Be a Massive Loss of Life’

February 23, 2011 at 6:47 PM EDT
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As the Libyan government continues to use violence against protesters, the international community is debating ways to respond. Jeffrey Brown talks about the options with Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, Georgetown University's Charles Kupchan and Maurizio Molinari of the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

GWEN IFILL: Next, the international response to Gadhafi’s efforts to suppress the Libyan revolt.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we explore the options with Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who previously served at the National Security Council and State Department; Maurizio Molinari, U.S. correspondent for the Italian newspaper La Stampa; and Charles Kupchan, professor of international relations at Georgetown and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He also served on the National Security Council staff.

Tom Malinowski, let’s start with the president. He said that he was instructing his administration to explore the range — full range of options. What should those be and with what urgency?

TOM MALINOWSKI, Human Rights Watch: I think that where we need to start is understanding that there isn’t anything that’s going to convince Gadhafi himself to come out of the bunker. As we heard, he’s going to fight until the end.

But the fate of Libya is not in Gadhafi’s hands. It’s in the hands of the men who have to decide in the next day or two whether to follow his orders. And those are the people who can still be influenced to make the right choice.


TOM MALINOWSKI: Through economic sanctions. The administration, working with its European allies, could stop very, very quickly virtually all of Libya’s international financial dealings, transactions, banking transactions, through threats of international prosecution — there’s already serious conversation about taking Libya to the International Criminal Court — through providing assistance directly to the areas of Libya that are under opposition control.

And it’s not that these measures necessarily would have an immediate economic bite necessarily on these individuals, but they would help convince them that the tide is turning against their leader, psychologically, and that it is not in their interest to follow him into the abyss.

JEFFREY BROWN: Charles Kupchan, what are the constraints that you see? What are the people at the National Security Council and the State Department mulling over, worrying about, especially when you go even further to potential no-fly zone? And that would go a step further.

CHARLES KUPCHAN, former National Security Council official: Well, I think they’re worrying about the region writ large to begin with, in the sense that this is a moment of great promise in the Middle East, but it’s also a moment of great peril, in the sense that, as the lid comes off Libya, Iraq, Egypt, protests across the region, we may well see cleavages that have been long suppressed by coercion bubble up. We may see political Islam that has been suppressed by coercion bubble up.

So, I think they’re trying to balance…

JEFFREY BROWN: So, that’s the big picture.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: That’s the big picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: But immediate picture here, is if there is killing going on in Libya, what are the constraints on action by the U.S. or the international community?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I would basically agree with the specific steps that Tom laid out. I think that we have limited leverage. Other countries, particularly the British and the Italians, have more leverage than we do.

But I think that the — the no-fly zone would probably be a step too far, number one, because most of the killing that’s taking place is guys riding around in pickup trucks with machine guns. And secondly, I think we have to be very careful about doing things that may appear to be colonial intervention.

JEFFREY BROWN: Maurizio Molinari, you’re covering the situation at the U.N. What is on the — what is being discussed there, and with what urgency?

MAURIZIO MOLINARI, La Stampa: The urgency is in two directions.

The first one, of course, is to give time to the people on the ground to allow all these thousands of foreigners to get out from Libya. This is crucial in this moment. So, that’s the reason why they’re not rushing with other decisions, not to irritate the Libyan government.

We don’t have to forget that most of these foreign nationals are in Tripoli. And, in Tripoli, it’s still Gadhafi in power. And, of course, the second track is what to do, the humanitarian intervention, the idea to send people on the ground, to bring some food or some kind of help.

The no-fly zone is considered. The humanitarian corridors are considered. There are several options on the ground. But all — but please take note that Russia and China are assisting. They don’t want to implement measures that tomorrow could be implemented on their territories.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Maurizio, what of the European allies? The president talked of the world having to speak with one voice, but Hillary Clinton earlier today also talked about some nations, notably in Europe, Italy, for example, having closer ties, and therefore perhaps stronger influence.

MAURIZIO MOLINARI: In these hours, as we speak, the French are those that are pushing harder to have stronger measures against Libya.

The Italians, they have, theoretically, many possibilities, but in reality, the Berlusconi government is hesitating. The reason is that we are highly dependent on the import of gas and oil from Libya, and also that the biggest Italian bank was saved after the financial crisis of 2008 thanks to the financial intervention of the Italian — of the Libyan government.

And still, nowadays, if the bank is still operating, it’s thanks to the capital that Gadhafi is providing. And then we have the British. They are the most influential. They are the those that know the ground much better than all the others. And we have to look at London for what is going to happen, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Tom Malinowski, back to you. So, we have — we still have nationals in the country. That’s one fear. We have the larger fears that Charles Kupchan raised about area-wide, region-wide problems. And then we have some countries that feel bound because of particular ties.

So, again, you come back to the range. How hard would you push?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Well, we can be paralyzed by fear. And if we stay paralyzed by fear, we are going to look back on our response to these incredibly significant events and feel somewhat ashamed.

Or we can try to shape them as best as we can with the limited tools that we have to try to do our best. And I think that’s what the administration is starting to do. He mentioned oil, for example. Well, those are concerns, but the oil is not flowing right now, because Libya is in complete chaos. And so everybody has an interest in resolving the crisis for that reason.

Military options, I agree with Charlie that we’re not there yet. And no-fly zone is serious business. It means NATO aircraft shooting down Libyan planes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what would it take to get there?

TOM MALINOWSKI: I think — well, there is a nightmare scenario. Imagine if Gadhafi holds on in Tripoli, consolidates his position there, and decides: Now I’m going to try to retake the eastern part of the country that I have lost.

If Gadhafi retakes the east, we’re going to have multiple Srebrenicas. We’re going to have people lined being up and shot by the thousands, because that’s what he does. And I think that’s the point where people who say that’s not a realistic option right now are going to have to start considering it seriously.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that sound right to you, Charles Kupchan?


I mean, I’m a little bit more skeptical than Tom about the readiness of those around Gadhafi to peel away. And that’s because of the tribal structure in Libya. It’s not really a nation state as we use the word nation. It’s a grouping of different tribes, as many as 140, dominated by Gadhafi’s tribe and a few other powerful ones.

To get those around him, the security apparatus, to peel away, I think is going to be difficult. That’s why I would focus now on pressure to get Gadhafi and those around him to step back from using violence.

If it does spin out of control — I agree with Tom — it could be massive loss of life, because the east is effectively gone. To get it back would require an invasion.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how important is the international community speaking together — together and working together on this? Because, in that bite from the president, we didn’t continue — well, we heard it at the beginning of the show — but where he said, we might take actions on our own or with the international community?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think trying to get a unified position is very important.

We don’t have a lot of leverage in Libya right now. And that’s — we know from the previous conversation that — that Gadhafi is a tough customer. But I do think that this is a critical moment and that, as we saw in Egypt and as we saw in Bahrain, early intervention can convince leaders to step away from the unfettered use of force. This is a critical moment to try to convince Gadhafi to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Maurizio Molinari, how strong is the push to keep everyone together?

MAURIZIO MOLINARI: It’s very strong. And my impression is that the key corner of this operation are the African countries.

We know that the policy of Gadhafi changes very often in the past, butbasically he believes that Libya is the most important country of Africa. He believes that the African identity of his country, it’s more important than the Arab one.

So, when this — the president today, President Obama today spoke about the African Union speaking with the same voice of the other organizations, that was the key.

So, we have to look forward to see what the Arab — the African leaders will do to unify their position with the Europeans and the Americans, more than the Arab countries. For Gadhafi, for his weltanschauung, the world mind, the idea of the world that he has, what the Africans would say, it’s more important than the others.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Maurizio Molinari, Tom Malinowski, Charles Kupchan, thank you all very much.