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.”
· Who will govern the new Libya if the U.S. and NATO finally prevail? No one knows. The allies jumped into the Libyan imbroglio with little understanding of the underlying tribal and regional divisions. Qaddafi defectors, such as his interior minister, are unlikely poster boys for democracy. Moreover, the eastern region, the locus of the rebellion, is home to Islamic militants, some of whom have been identified as fighting with the resistance. In March Adm. James Stavridis, commander of NATO forces, said: “We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al-Qaeda, Hezbollah.” The former head of Libya al-Qaeda pointed to “freelance jihadists” joining the opposition. CIA Director Leon Panetta recently noted the presence of “extremists” who the U.S. is “watching very closely.” No doubt the opposition includes many genuine democrats, but such people often lose post-revolutionary power struggles—think France, Russia, Iran, Nicaragua, Kosovo.
· When do the allies expect the good guys, whoever they are, to prevail? Again, no one knows. Explained the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen: “It is a challenge for anybody to put a timetable on that.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague admitted that the war could continue into next year: “we’re not going to set a deadline. You’re asking about Christmas and who knows?”
· However, the president promised that the conflict would last days, not weeks, let alone months, and he is running out of time. A recent CBS News poll found that 60 percent of Americans don’t believe the U.S. should be fighting in Libya. Majorities of Republicans, independents, and Democrats oppose the war.
· There is little more support in Congress. Despite the predictable enthusiasm of Sen. McCain for expanding America’s role, his effort to pass a resolution supporting the war crashed. In the House only deft legislative legerdemain by Speaker John Boehner prevented passage of Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s resolution demanding the end of America’s participation.
· The essentially bankrupt Americans and Europeans proposed more humanitarian assistance and an additional $1.3 billion in support for the opposition, theoretically backed by frozen Libyan government money. Of course, if Qaddafi survives there will be no repayment. This comes on top of military costs, which are approaching a billion dollars each for America and Britain.
· The allied military strategy continues to be incremental escalation. Eleven weeks into the conflict Britain and France finally deployed attack helicopters. NATO officials warned Qaddafi to leave first, apparently thinking: “maybe this time he’ll finally go!”
· On his recent trip to Europe, Secretary Gates urged the allies to do more. He targeted Germany and Poland, which sensibly have avoided the entire fiasco, and other governments that were providing only noncombat support. Yet he could offer no argument other than “solidarity” for their participation—after admitting that the conflict does not constitute a “vital” U.S. interest. Norway then announced that it would withdraw from military operations by August 1, since it cannot sustain its contribution of six airplanes. Last week the secretary questioned NATO’s future, since the Europeans are “apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.”
· Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier made a similar plea for more European support, but faced criticism of America’s limited participation. She emphasized the importance of Washington’s ongoing role right after the president justified his failure to abide by the War Powers Resolution with the claim that what the U.S. was doing was so minor—only “limited” and “supporting”—that it didn’t even constitute fighting a war.
· At the same time, the rebels are blaming the allies for not doing enough. A 27-year-old medic in the town of Dafniya pointed to the lack of helicopters, and asked: “Why no NATO?” Another insurgent said that the allies had to take out government tanks and rockets. Similar opposition complaints were heard when the U.S. turned operations over to NATO.