In his increasingly ugly fight for political survival, Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi has dragged his country into civil war. Qadhafi has repeatedly and emphatically stated that he will not leave Libya, even as opposition forces angered over his 42 years of rule have seized control over widening swaths of the country, and advanced to the outskirts of Tripoli.
Washington, initially timid if not completely silent, has now swung unabashedly in favor of forcing Gadhafi out. President Obama has become more forceful about ousting the embattled dictator, particularly since the last U.S. citizens left Libya on Feb. 26. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. would provide "any type of assistance" (including, presumably, military assistance) to anti-government forces. Now, reports indicate that U.S. warships are on the way via the Suez Canal.
The White House would not likely deploy troops on Libyan soil, but it can use U.S. naval power to enforce a no-fly zone and to ensure the safe passage of humanitarian aid to areas that have been nearly impossible to reach. This is also a bit of psychological warfare, of course. The mere threat of U.S. firepower will not be lost on Qadhafi, who remembers the air strikes President Reagan ordered in response to Libya's bombing of a Berlin discotheque bombing in 1986. That bombing raid killed Qadhafi's adopted daughter.
The threat of force, coupled with U.S. sanctions that froze Qadhafi's assets in America, and U.N. sanctions that bar his family from traveling, has put the Libyan leader in a corner.
Members of Congress are now calling for the United States to recognize a provisional anti-regime government in the eastern city of Benghazi. Given the utter lack of institutions in Libya, and the risk of a political vacuum after Qadhafi is gone, this is a tempting policy to embrace. However, at the moment, it is ill-advised. Before making these people political bedfellows, we should first know exactly who they are, and what they stand for. Though Libya's opposition groups are not, as Qadhafi alleges, all al-Qaeda fighters or drug addicts, they are a mixed bag.
In the meantime, the U.S. government has other vital intelligence to collect. Qadhafi has reportedly stockpiled 10 metric tons of mustard sulfate and a precursor to sarin gas in the Libyan desert. The fear, of course, is that it could fall into the hands of the affiliate group known as al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb. At the same time, some 400 members the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, another Al Qaeda franchise, have either broken out of jail or been released in recent weeks, creating a realistic possibility that WMD will fall into terrorist hands.
Another nightmare is an Alamo scenario, in which Qadhafi, facing the end of his regime, fires chemical weapons on his own people. The United States must keep a close eye on these weapons in the coming months, and prepare for the worst.