Libya Escalation Inevitable

One way or another, America will have to become more involved in Libya to break the stalemate.

Deploy NATO ground forces as peacekeepers. One of the great risks over the long term is that NATO air forces will eventually get worn out by the constant cat-and-mouse games of the regime’s forces, and at some point, Qaddafi’s troops will catch NATO off guard and be in Benghazi before NATO can stop them. One part of that problem is that the rebel ground forces are not strong enough to repel a regime ground attack without NATO air support. Thus, one solution to that problem would be to deploy a force of peacekeepers on the ground between the rebels and the regime forces to prevent a regime ground attack. European troops, perhaps leavened with Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan or other Muslim forces for political appearances, should be more than adequate to play this role. However, since such a deployment is not politically sustainable in perpetuity, it could only be part of a larger strategy—a way to buy time for some other gambit. Since Qaddafi’s past behavior should give us absolutely no confidence that he could be trusted to keep any political agreement he struck, this could only be intended to buy time to…

Arm, train, and organize the Libyan rebels. In Afghanistan in 2001, the United States demonstrated that a reasonably competent rebel army (the Northern Alliance) could smash third world regime forces—even regime forces that had had the upper hand in the past—when backed by determined, Western air power. The Libyan rebels are not close to being the Northern Alliance yet, and it is going to take them months, probably a few years, to get to the point where they are. European trainers could certainly get them there; European military advisers have done well with numerous other third world military forces, including in the Middle East, although American assistance would certainly be very welcome.

Ultimately, arming the rebels and turning them into a more competent force is probably the inevitable option. Since we aren’t going to invade, even stepped-up air strikes are not guaranteed to succeed, and a European peacekeeping ground force could not be maintained indefinitely, arming the rebels is the ultimate fallback option, and the sooner that we get started on it, the better.

And while it is an afterthought to this piece, let us remember that the rebuilding of Libya cannot be an afterthought to this entire endeavor—still another area where the Obama administration’s grim determination to avoid getting involved could hurt us badly when it is all over. When Qaddafi finally falls, which may require several years if we get started right now, Libya is going to need a lot of nation building. Like Iraq before it, Libya will have suffered through war, civil war and sanctions; and like Iraq before it, Libya was a badly underdeveloped, traumatized country even before the events of the past few months. Again, the United States need not commit ourselves to Libya’s reconstruction as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan, but neither can we walk away. As we learned in other places like Cambodia, East Timor, and the Balkans, even when the United States does not shoulder the entire burden, our role is critical as part of a broader international effort. And as we should have learned in Iraq, planning for the postwar reconstruction needs to start long before the last bullet is fired.

Image by Mohammed Shamma