Headfirst into the Libyan Quagmire

No strategy for dispatching Qaddafi. No knowledge of the rebels. No plan for reconstruction. Welcome to the Libyan intervention.

Did the Obama administration seriously expect Muammar Qaddafi to just go? The man had been branded a war criminal; all he could look forward to was prosecution in the Hague. Why should he ever do anything other than fight on?

Of course, senior administration officials continually express the hope that one of Qaddafi’s henchmen would “bump him off.” But Qaddafi is no fool; he has lived with the threat of assassination for decades. His modus operandi, to all intents and purposes, is to hold the families of his leading officials hostage. If any attempt is made on his life, theirs will be forfeit. Former foreign minister Mousa Koussa’s defection was nothing more than that of a rat who perceived the ship to be sinking. Could one expect anything more from a former head of Libyan intelligence? In any event, not many other officials have followed suit, nor are they likely to at any time soon.

Yet another administration option has been to dispatch Qaddafi as collateral damage to a bombing run. With the transfer of combat operations to the Europeans in NATO, that alternative is no longer practical, if it ever was. Hunting down enemy leaders is an iffy proposition: Saddam Hussein was captured after Americans occupied his country; on the other hand, after a decade, Osama bin Laden is still on the loose. And of course, the United States tried once before to render Qaddafi as collateral damage; the Gulf of Sidra operation was a success, but the dictator remained very much alive.

Washington’s entire Libya policy, not merely its efforts to remove Qaddafi, is in fact more akin to a series of pious wishes than to anything else. Just as it hopes for a deus ex machina to eliminate Qaddafi, so it trusts that the rebels will emerge as decent, honest and upstanding statesmen, who will transform their state into a fine liberal democracy. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a Nelson Mandela among them.

The administration is relying on its NATO allies to fly combat missions, even as the rebels complain of NATO’s incompetence, and NATO says the same of the rebels. At some point, sooner rather than later, the Europeans will no longer be able to mount continuous operations over Libya. The stalemate will either continue, or Qaddafi will have the upper hand. Washington will be asked to step in—again, perhaps with even more force than before. To do so will constitute an error of majestic proportions. The last thing the United States needs is yet another protracted conflict in the Arab world.

Even if it is not called upon to provide more military support to the rebels, Washington is likely to be asked to help with reconstruction of Libya, or at least of that part of Libya controlled by the rebels—about whom, after weeks of fighting, little continues to be known. At a public hearing held by the Commission on Wartime Contracting on Monday, April 11, an official from the United States Institute of Peace let slip that the Administration has begun to plan for post-war reconstruction. Of course, the planning only began after the war had started—the Obama critique of the Bush administration’s failure to plan for the Iraq occupation has been conveniently forgotten. In any event, the American taxpayer is likely to foot a good part of the cost to “rebuild” Libya. The Europeans, at least those in the Eurozone, are too preoccupied with shoring up their southern flank: Portugal has asked for help, and Spain, with one of Europe’s largest economies, might yet do so. Since 2001 the Arabs have not ponied up funds to anything like the degree they did after the liberation of Kuwait. If they did not do so for Iraq, they can hardly be expected to be more generous to Libya.

Should the United States, already facing a massive budget crisis, take on yet another nation-building role, given its less than stellar record in Iraq and Afghanistan? The answer should be self-evident. Unfortunately, it may not be for an administration that has yet to provide the American people with a truly adequate explanation of how it got so deeply involved in Libya in the first place.