In Libya, an unstated mission

Our view: There is no good outcome for Libya that leaves Col. Gadhafi in power, but it's unclear whether the West's current level of engagement will be sufficient

March 21, 2011

The allied military strikes in Libya may well be, in British Prime Minister David Cameron's formulation, "necessary, legal and right." It is clear that Libya's rebel movement would soon have collapsed without foreign help. The resolution authorizing force by the United Nations provides a legal basis for the action, and the mercilessness with which Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was training his military forces against his own people made it right. But that leaves other crucial questions, primarily: What is our objective, and can we achieve it through airstrikes alone?

President Barack Obama said weeks ago that Mr. Gadhafi "has to go," but his administration has been much more guarded on that topic since, and the notion has not been explicitly endorsed by either the U.N. Security Council or the Arab League, which have focused their attention on protecting Libya's civilian population. However, it is impossible to imagine a scenario in which Mr. Gadhafi stays in power, even in a partitioned Libya, and does not extract revenge on those countrymen who have sought to remove him. He has not shown himself to be a forgiving man. Moreover, the nations who have participated in the strikes against Libya's military have good reason to fear that, if operations cease and Mr. Gadhafi remains, he would retaliate by supporting terrorist actions against the West. He has certainly done so before.

The question then becomes whether our current efforts will be enough to force Mr. Gadhafi out. So far, the military action has set the stage for a no-fly zone and has stopped the government forces' advance on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi by targeting tanks, armored personnel carriers and mobile artillery. It appears that Mr. Gadhafi's compound was also hit, but his whereabouts are unknown, and military officials insist that he is not being targeted personally. The western strikes have led the Gadhafi government to issue occasional promises of a cease-fire, alternated with bellicose language and promises of a long war. Listening to the pronouncements of Mr. Gadhafi and his government is generally pointless; the only proof is what's happening on the ground, and there, the military forces continue to target rebels in the east and west.

It appears that our current level of engagement is sufficient to remove some of the overwhelming advantage that Mr. Gadhafi's forces enjoyed over the rebels. No longer can the Libyan air force take out rebel positions and ammunition dumps, and no longer can Libyan tanks, helicopters and artillery freely engage in the battle. But is that enough for the rebels to win? They have long pleaded for such intervention, saying that if the West imposed a no-fly zone, they would be able to defeat the government forces. But by all accounts, they are a rag-tag group with little discipline or training, poorly armed and lacking in basic communications and command structures. Their optimism has repeatedly proved unfounded. It is possible we have done no more than create the conditions for a stalemate.

Hanging over the operation is the specter of Iraq, where we were promised that an easy military victory would spark a popular rebellion but instead found ourselves in the middle of an insurrection. In an ironic critique, Stephen J. Hadley, who was an architect of the 2003 Iraq invasion when he served as national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said at a forum in San Francisco on Saturday that we have engaged in Libya with too vague a mission and too few resources to get the job done.

There are key differences between Libya and Iraq, notably that in Libya, the West is intervening on behalf of an established rebel movement, not merely hoping that one will emerge, and that some top-level officials and military figures have already deserted the Gadhafi regime. It is certainly possible that the Western action will lead more units of the military to desert or to join the other side.

Those prospects might have been stronger two weeks ago, when the rebels had the momentum and first began their calls for a no-fly zone. Some of the president's critics say we waited too long and now we are in a situation where much greater force will be required. But if the United States had intervened two weeks ago, it might well have been on its own, without the legitimacy of a United Nations resolution, or the support — however tenuous it now is — of the Arab League. Because we waited, we are now a member of a legitimate international coalition, and a junior member at that.

The president's critics are right to demand more clarity about what our objectives are and how far we are willing to go in pursuit of them. But they are wrong to suggest that the cause is already lost, or that we have taken the first step into another quagmire. Greater intervention may be required — whether that's arming the rebels or sending in ground forces — but because of the way the Obama administration has handled the situation, we don't necessarily have to be the ones to provide it.

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