South African President Jacob Zuma arrived in Tripoli on Monday for a private meeting with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. If Zuma’s intent is to persuade Qaddafi to leave Libya immediately, he deserves applause. So, too, does Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who at the Group of 8 summit in France last week announced he would send diplomatic representatives to Libya to convince Qaddafi to step aside.
Forcing Qaddafi to leave the stage was likely made more difficult with last week’s arrest on war-crimes charges of the former Serbian military commander Ratko Mladic. The Mladic capture was a victory for international justice, and showed the importance of consistent Western pressure. Yet, by reminding Qaddafi of what might happen if he gave up power, it may have unintentionally complicated diplomatic efforts to remove the Libyan dictator.
The referral by the United Nations of Qaddafi’s case to the International Criminal Court last week probably didn’t help matters, either, and was an example of the lawyers getting too far ahead of the strategists.
If the South African and Russian initiatives are in earnest, they need all the backing they can get. First, the African Union, which has long benefited from Qaddafi’s petrodollars, will need help standing firm and insisting that there can be no peace agreement that leaves him in office. The failed cease-fire the union brokered in April showed the folly of trying to cut any deal that doesn’t mandate Qadaffi’s exit.
Second, it is critical that the West increase the pressure. Not only should NATO intensify its air campaign protecting civilians, but President Barack Obama should see that the U.S. resumes its natural place as the indispensable leader of the Western alliance.
There is no doubt that Qaddafi deserves a trial at The Hague and a lifetime behind bars. But if the price for ending his war on his own people is allowing him safe haven in a country that can be expected to block his extradition, at least for now, it is a devil’s bargain worth making.
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