In March 1941, Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps broke out of western Libya (Tripolitania) and attacked to the east, into Cyrenaica. By the mid-April 1941, the Germans reached the port of Tobruk and surrounded it.
Moammar Gadhafi's March 2011 offensive isn't precisely following Afrika Korps' tank tracks. However, the principal objectives of a military offensive in Cyrenaica have not changed: Libya's coastal cities.
Rommel had targets well beyond Cyrenaica -- he intended to blitz Egypt and seize the Suez Canal. Fantasists in Berlin suggested Rommel might continue on toward Persia (Iran).
The megalomaniacal Gadhafi entertains many fantasies. Not so long ago, taking control of Egypt, via assassination or divine acclamation, was among them. Now, as he and his corrupt clique fight for survival, his loyalist and mercenary forces need only take Benghazi and Tobruk.
Crack Tobruk, and the Libyan rebels have three choices: surrender, seek asylum in Egypt or head for the deep southern desert and wage a longshot guerrilla war. Surrender is defeat, followed by mass executions and mass gravesites. Asylum is defeat -- as the rebels hole up in Cairo, Gadhafi will launch bloody reprisals against Cyrenaica's people. As for a guerrilla war waged from the Sahara? Gadhafi will have an air-power advantage. The coastal cities will also provide him with thousands of hostages (the guerrillas' relatives) to torture and kill.
Rebel options, post-Tobruk, are dreadful. The mass graves outside the cities will be hideous. The long-term strategic implications of a Gadhafi victory are also hideous.
Why can't NATO or the UN or the G-8 agree to impose a no-fly zone on Libya's dictator? The Obama administration, whatever its latest rhetoric, has willingly enmeshed itself in a multilateral spider's web of narrow interests, fear and greed. At some level, Gadhafi serves Russian and Chinese commercial arrangements. Europe fears the appearance of colonialism. The pertinent phrase here is, "Gadhafi is the devil we know."
As for the rebels? Why, they are fractious. They have courage, beg for aid and air cover, but -- a second pertinent phrase -- "we just don't know who they are."
The wretched phrase signals either an intelligence failure, or a failure of will by Western leaders, or -- most probable -- both.
A Gadhafi win tells the world violent subjugation works. Iran's tyrants hope so. Gadhafi's survival may also serve Chinese domestic political interests. Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, which inspires Libya's rebels, has inspired Chinese dissidents.
Meanwhile, the Arab League has asked the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to protect vulnerable civilians. Neighboring Egypt and Tunisia voted for it. They have no interest in a victorious Gadhafi seeding regional turmoil. Nor do they have an interest in post-Gadhafi chaos. Given his age and savage madness, even if he smashes the current rebellion, he will go, sooner rather than later, and his going will be ugly. Count on more civil war. Western nations, Egypt and Tunisia will face another "we just don't know" situation. New mass graves will dot the desert.
That's why it makes political and moral sense to help defeat the devil we know now rather than face a worse hell later.
But as Gadhafi's tanks advance and kill, the Obama administration stalls. It apparently finds a Gadhafi victory preferable to facing charges of imperialism or comparison to George W. Bush -- despite the political cover of the Arab League's appeal.
Egypt also has an air force. Pray Cairo uses it in Cyrenaica before Gadhafi's mercenaries reach Tobruk. The Egyptian general who makes that decision will deserve a Nobel Peace Prize.