The Next Step in Libya

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Hitting home Soldiers in Gaddafi's compound assess the damage from a cruise-missile strike

With growing demands for President Obama to clarify the international mission in Libya and with many calling for the escalation of military force in support of those challenging Muammar Gaddafi's rule, it is crucial to identify and move to the next stage of the intervention in Libya.

That stage should not be targeting Gaddafi, which would surely be viewed as tantamount to an attempt at foreign-imposed regime change. That would break the international coalition and congeal support for Gaddafi inside Libya. Airpower designed to kill leaders has been tried numerous times over the past two decades, but it has never on its own solved a significant military or political problem. In April 1986, U.S. forces bombed Tripoli and tried to assassinate Gaddafi from the air. The effort only strengthened his hold on power.

But there are alternatives. The coalition's next step should involve massive economic aid to Benghazi and the rest of eastern Libya, for three reasons. First, as a humanitarian matter, economic shipments are crucial to the well-being of the people of the east. A country of mostly uninhabitable desert, Libya has to import 90% of its food, nearly all of it by way of sea commerce across the Mediterranean from Europe or by land from neighboring countries like Egypt. With the continuing fighting in Libya, this commercial shipping has been greatly disrupted. Libyans have been living mainly off stockpiles of food and other basic necessities, which are likely to become exhausted in the coming weeks.

Providing major economic support in this case, it should be noted, is easier than in a typical humanitarian emergency, since most Libyans are living in their home areas and not in refugee camps. These shipments should start now. If we wait until severe shortages occur, many Libyans will suffer unnecessarily — which will provide Gaddafi with a major propaganda coup that he will surely use to his advantage.

Second, economic assistance is the key to the success or failure of the Libyan revolution. Three weeks ago, nearly 75% of the population broke away from Gaddafi. Benghazi was central to the revolution then and remains so now. The city and the 2 million Libyans in the east were the first to separate from the regime, and then about half the west followed, including Libya's largest tribe, the Warfalla, 1 million strong.

Massive economic shipments to Benghazi and the east are likely to reproduce this story of the first weeks of the rebellion. Such economic aid will make it clear to everyone that Gaddafi will never again be able to brutalize the east; that will in turn encourage large-scale shifts against him in the west.

Over time, Libyans will then decide Gaddafi's fate. We saw a similar case when Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader, fell after the Kosovo war of 1999. Once Milosevic had lost Kosovo, he increasingly lost all credibility, even with his supporters, and the Serbs deposed him a year later. That outcome was good for the Serbs and the world.

Third, focusing on economic shipments is a way of maintaining the cohesion of the international coalition, whose members disagree about whether Gaddafi should be targeted or regime change adopted as a goal. In fact, a shift of focus to the economic could strengthen the coalition. Turkey has been calling for humanitarian intervention for weeks and should be asked to take the lead in sending goods to Benghazi, while the Arab League should be asked to provide short-term funding until the finances of the east are in order. De-emphasizing the military element in this way will make it increasingly clear that Libya is not merely a NATO or Western mission and may enable the coalition to expand and take in members such as Brazil and South Africa.

There should also be an effort to engage a broad range of international relief agencies to monitor and help distribute resources to the coastal cities in the east. Small numbers of staff from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Islamic Relief and the World Food Programme are already on the ground. In time, their numbers should be increased, and they should be augmented by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, Doctors Without Borders and other nongovernmental organizations.

The model here is Operation Provide Comfort, the effort to offer sustained economic assistance to the Kurds in northern Iraq in the 1990s after the first Gulf War. Successful integration of NGO participation with state action was an important part of the success of Provide Comfort. If something like it can be replicated in eastern Libya, the conundrum of what the next step in the international intervention should be will have been solved.

Pape is a professor, the director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and a co-author of Cutting the Fuse: The Global Explosion of Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It

This article originally appeared in the April 4, 2011 issue of TIME Europe.