Once you have read the below, you are likely to know more about an all-important aspect of the Libyan question than the Commander-in-Chief. However, should he know as much as you do, his irresponsibility is even more breathtaking.
Western media and policy types have a fuzzy image of the rebels as brave, democratic insurgents determined to liberate the country from a brutal tyrant. But there are other, perhaps far more important, elements involved. Libya itself is yet another fragile, artificial political entity that the European colonial powers created. Italy cobbled together three disparate provinces to establish its Libyan colony. Those areas consisted of Cyrenaica in the east (centered around the cities of Benghazi and Tobruk), Tripolitania in the west (centered around Tripoli, which became the colonial capital), and less populous and less important Fezzan in the south-southwest.
The key point is that the various tribes inhabiting Cyrenaica and Tripolitania had almost nothing in common. Indeed, they sometimes had an adversarial relationship. Yet, when the victorious Allied powers took control of Libya from Italy during and after World War II, they maintained this unstable amalgam instead of separating it into its more cohesive constituent parts.
That is not merely a matter of historical interest. The sharp divide between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania persisted after Libya became independent, and it persists to this day. It is no coincidence that the current uprising against the Qaddafi regime began in the east, with rebel forces quickly seizing Benghazi and other cities in Cyrenaica. Virtually all previous (unsuccessful) anti-regime movements began in the same region. Qaddafi is from Tripolitania and has long depended on western tribes and his western-dominated security forces as his power base. And as easily as rebel demonstrators and troops seized major targets in the east, they predictably faltered as they pressed deeper into Tripolitania.
The agenda of the rebels remains uncertain, but the two leading possibilities both pose major problems for the United States and its allies as they launch their intervention. One possibility is that insurgent leaders want to keep Libya intact and simply reverse the power relationship with their Tripolitanian adversaries. In other words, a victory over the Qaddafi regime would be time for payback. The other possibility is that they wish to split the country and secure independence for Cyrenaica. There is historical precedent for such an objective. Libya’s monarch, King Idris, told the United States and the other Allied powers after World War II that he wished to rule only Cyrenaica, because he thought that trying to control the larger amalgam would be too difficult and lead to dangerous instability.
Bush administration leaders greatly underestimated the depth of the divisions among Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, and that blunder contributed greatly to Washington’s headaches in that country. The Obama administration may be poised to make a similar blunder in Libya. Assisting the Cyrenaica-based rebels to oust Qaddafi will almost certainly provoke resentment from the people of Tripolitania. If the rebels split the country, that will become a focal point of resentment for those defeated tribes—and a new grievance against the West throughout much of the Muslim world. Even if the rebels attempt to keep Libya intact, the Tripolitanians are bound to resent Washington for their new, subordinate status. Either way, the United States and its allies are in danger of stumbling into a situation in which they are almost certain to acquire new enemies. That is the last thing that America needs.