Fools Rush into Tripoli

The Libyan train wreck is on track to get much worse.

The ongoing war in Libya is not so much watching a train wreck, which can be serious, as viewing a rickshaw mishap. The participants might suffer some discomfort, but no lasting harm.

Every American president seems to start at least one war. George W. Bush initiated two conflicts. He was ill informed, impetuous, and foolish. The casualties and costs of his actions were catastrophic. But he addressed significant issues.

Barack Obama is different in almost every way. Knowledgeable, cool and reasoned, he has one new war on his record. America’s casualties and costs in Libya are likely to remain minimal. Although an embarrassing example of geopolitical FUBAR, the conflict is of little consequence. Whatever happens, the world will quickly go back to normal.

That Muammar Qaddafi is a thug deserving of early retirement long has been obvious—even back when Western governments rehabilitated his regime. Three of the Senate’s leading hawks, John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, spent a pleasant time in Tripoli two years ago supping with the dictator and discussing the possibility of providing military aid. Britain sold the Qaddafi regime crowd-control technologies. And everyone bought his oil.

However, earlier this year allied governments noticed that Qaddafi was vulnerable. He faced domestic revolt and—the naïve fool, as the North Koreans triumphantly observed—had agreed to abandon terrorism, limit the range of his missiles and drop his nuclear program. The Western powers decided to get ahead of the curve with a little democracy promotion. Particularly insistent was France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, down in the polls with an election scheduled next year.

Why President Obama joined in is anyone’s guess. Maybe he really believed his rhetoric. Yet the claim of incipient genocide was merely the humanitarian equivalent of Bush’s missing WMDs. Then truth mattered not in scaring the public with the impending specter of mushroom clouds and doom. Truth mattered no more when it came to predicting massacre in Benghazi: Qaddafi’s florid rhetoric was directed at fighters, not civilians, and his forces had engaged in no orgies of killing when they recaptured other cities. So the Obama fake followed the Bush fake.

Now NATO is locked in a bizarre stalemate in North Africa, with alliance aircraft, missiles and drones killing Libyans and wasting money, doing just enough to prolong a civil war that has killed 10,000 to 15,000 Libyans. And there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no corner turned, no victory within sight.

Apparently the French and British, who most insistently pressed for military action, thought the U.S. would follow precedent and do the hard work. Apparently the president thought Qaddafi would act against precedent (think Slobodan Milosevic) and surrender at the mere announcement of war. There was, and remains, no Plan B. Qaddafi should leave. Qaddafi must leave. Qaddafi will leave. So allied officials say, hope, dream, and pray.

The only solution is for the U.S. and NATO to pack up and go home. That would do little for America’s and Europe’s reputations, of course, but most of the damage already has been done. If after nearly three months the greatest military alliance in human history can’t figure out how to oust Muammar Qaddafi—Muammar Qaddafi!—then it really is not an entity to be treated seriously. And the longer the conflict drags on, the more foolish, indeed, deranged, the alliance members appear to be.

There is one clear lesson: don’t put your credibility on the line if you’re not serious about protecting it. Germany was much abused for abstaining on the United Nations Security Council vote, but every additional day of war reinforces the rightness of Berlin’s decision. The president made good his pledge to turn the campaign over to NATO, but if the conflict is important enough to semi-support for nearly three months, presumably it is important enough to support enough to win. Looking even more foolish are France and Great Britain, initiating a war they were incapable of fighting as they reduced the size of their militaries. The other NATO members proved they were paper tigers, with militaries useful for few things other than providing soldiers a paycheck.

But the allies appear to be locked into their current course. Earlier this month White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declared: “We believe that the policy is working.” British Defense Secretary Liam Fox similarly opined that the campaign has been “extraordinarily successful.” So FUBAR continues to be the order of the day.

Consider recent events:

· Last week President Obama said that “Qaddafi must step down and hand power to the Libyan people, and the pressure will only continue to increase until he does.” One unnamed NATO official stated: Qaddafi is a “legitimate target.” In effect, the allies have admitted guilt to Russian and Chinese charges of violating the limits of UN Resolution 1973. Back in March Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the mission could be accomplished while leaving Qaddafi in power: “That’s certainly, potentially, one outcome.” The president even more emphatically denied that regime change was the objective: The experience in Iraq “is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”

· The allies are simultaneously demanding that Qaddafi yield power and face prosecution from the International Criminal Court. Noted Hugh Roberts of the Crisis Group, this approach virtually ensures “that he will stay in Libya to the bitter end and go down fighting.”

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