Posted on 22-03-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

After weeks of refusing to get involved in Libya with the war-mongerers Stateside accusing him of dithering, Barack Obama turned on a dime and endorsed military action in Libya.   The push for war was largely driven by the French and the British and cloaked with legitimacy by the Arab League’s call for a no-fly zone over Libya.  The French intervention appears driven by a desire to restore their tarnished prestige following a series of diplomatic blunders with respect to the Arab uprisings.  In my opinion Obama’s shift can be explained by the following:

  • Nobody likes Muammar Gaddafi (other than Hugo Chavez) and everybody was excited at the thought of his imminent departure.
  • But Gaddafi has proved surprisingly resilient and his opposition hopelessly disorganized.
  • Last week as Gaddafi’s armor reached Benghazi there was the sudden unpalatable realization that Gaddafi was about to win.
  • Gaddafi went on television once again promising wholesale slaughter, conjuring up memories of the failure to prevent the massacres at Srebrenica in 1995 and of the Iraqi Shiites in 1991.
  • Even though he stood at the brink of victory, Gaddafi’s armed forces are weak and his advance was easily stopped.

It is interesting to speculate whether the UN would have acted if Gaddafi had not broadcast his genocidal intentions to the world.  The broadcasts may have been enough to prevent Russia and China from vetoing intervention in Libya (ironic given the willingness of both those regimes to slaughter their people in Chechnya and at Tiananmen respectively).  Yet the old fault lines are obvious.  The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and Germany all abstained at the vote.  The Arab League whose support lent legitimacy to the operation promptly flip-flopped when the bombs started to fall.

It is hard to avoid the impression that the war was a half-baked attempt to stop a Gaddafi victory.  To his credit Barack Obama is aware (unlike many of his domestic critics) that the United States no longer has the credibility to initiate an armed intervention in the Arab or Muslim world.  Unlike the coalition of the billing that accompanied the United States into Iraq, this is a true (if disorganized) coalition with NATO allies doing heavy lifting and a few Gulf monarchies sending their fighter jets to enforce the no-fly zone.  Gaddafi’s unpopularity on the Arab street has muted some of the reflexive anti-American voices.  People still carp that this is “about oil.”  That makes no sense since Gaddafi’s legitimization in the last decade was followed by the entry of western oil companies into Libya.  Getting rid of Gaddafi was no longer a prerequisite to get Libyan oil.

The problem is that nobody has explained the end-objective of what is likely to be an open-ended military commitment.  Nobody has any idea what the disorganized Libyan opposition stands for.  Various parts of the coalition differ on the wisdom or legality of killing Gaddafi with a military strike.  Other NATO allies are showing marked reluctance to being involved in the operation and the United States is on record wanting to hand off the baton to someone else.  With the rest of the world used to freeloading on US leadership and the casting stones at the United States for “causing civilian deaths,” it is difficult to see who that would be.  There has been no debate within the United States about what American strategic goals are and how this war will be paid for.

Basically the allies are gambling that elimination of Gaddafi’s air and armor advantage will allow the opposition to sweep into Tripoli.  The precedents for this exist in the success of the Bosnian Muslims and Croats after NATO’s bombing of Serb positions.  Aerial bombardment and limited special forces involvement enabled the Northern Alliance to sweep the Taliban out of Kabul in 2001.  Yet key differences exist.  The Bosnian and Northern Alliance forces had been tempered by years of war and had an organized command structure.  The Libyan opposition is hopelessly out-gunned by even Gaddafi’s ramshackle army and mercenaries.  On the flip side the ramshackle nature of Gaddafi’s military and regime makes it unlikely that his generals will want to go down shooting for him.  There is a rumor that a kamikaze attack by a Libyan pilot may have killed one of Gaddafi’s sons.  Combined with rumors of members of the regime seeking exit strategies, Gaddafi’s rule may be cracking.

The quickest solution to this military dilemma would be for the Egyptian army to march west.  Even if it is bloated and inefficient, the Egyptian army would probably sweep aside Gaddafi’s forces.  Such an intervention would probably play well with the Egyptian street that is suspicious of the Generals’ commitment to democracy.  But the Egyptians are playing coy and their aid to the rebels has been under the table.  Their Generals have some cause for worry that an invasion of Libya could trap their army in an unwinnable occupation of a failed tribal entity with a national flag (See: Ethiopian intervention in Somalia – 2006-2009).

This is a war where the ends will unfortunately justify the means.  The quick fall of Gaddafi (even though regime change is not a declared purpose of the war) with minimal bloodshed will vindicate Messrs. Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron.  If Gaddafi holds on and the result is a long drawn civil war and military stalemate the intervention will ultimately be seen as a failure.  The fall of Gaddafi followed by chaos will probably be seen as a failure as well.

For now we cross our fingers and wait….and hope.

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