The Libyan city of Benghazi, the “capital” of the east and the second largest city in the country, held a referendum this past weekend on whether or not to declare political autonomy. The results aren’t in yet, but it’s likely to pass.
Muammar Qaddafi knew if an uprising against him were to break out that it would start in Benghazi. His regime never had much support in the east. His family was from the west, which to the people of Benghazi practically made him a foreigner.
Libya doesn’t make much sense as a country. The western region, Tripolitania, has historically been oriented westward toward Carthage and Tunis. Cyrenaica, the area surrounding Benghazi, has always looked eastward toward Egypt.
As long as it doesn’t become infested with the likes of al-Qaeda, the distinct Saharan region of Fezzan south of Tripolitania may be too sparsely populated to be an ongoing geopolitical concern. The population of Cyrenaica, though, is huge—almost a third of the total—and Libya’s baked-in disunity is one of the reasons Qaddafi ran such a viciously repressive political system. He smothered Benghazi with far more totalitarianism than he ever inflicted on Tripoli.
In today’s New York Times, terrorism expert Peter Bergen, whose work I respect, presents an image of Barack Obama as he would like to be presented to the electorate–as a “warrior-in-chief” who has turned out to be far more hawkish than either liberal supporters or conservative critics anticipated. There is some truth to this portrait, but it is incomplete. It would have been considerably more convincing if written last year, immediately after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and seemed to liberate Obama’s inner dove, rather than today.
Here is how Bergen makes his case:
Mr. Obama decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership. He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in al-Qaeda, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. And, of course, Mr. Obama ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
On March 28, 2011, when President Barack Obama addressed the nation to explain U.S. forces’ involvement in operations over Libyan skies, he made a compelling moral argument. In his speech, Obama illustrated the rapid chain of events that led to U.S. and international intervention and referred to Libya’s late dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s forces closing in on Benghazi by saying, “If we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”
Benghazi, noted the president, is a city of 700,000 people – the size of a big American city.
Expecting the worst, then, the rationale for U.S. intervention was driven by humanitarian considerations – a pre-emptive strike to save human lives from an anticipated massacre that had not happened yet and was in America’s power to avoid.