The War on Gaddafi

Why the tyrant staying in power is an unacceptable outcome.

Allied aircraft swept through Libyan skies on Monday, the third day of operations against the military forces of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The day brought little in the way of major military developments as operations launched in the days earlier continued apace. The allied aircraft — British, French, American and for the first time Canadian — have continued to bomb Libyan air defenses, command and control facilities, and enforce a no-fly zone over the country.

Libya’s air force, primarily armed with obsolete Soviet hardware but equipped with a once-potent air-defense network of radars and missiles sites, is effectively out of the war. On Saturday, hours after French jets attacked and destroyed a column of Libyan vehicles advancing on the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi, U.S. and British warships fired more than 100 cruise missiles at the most crucial nodes of the Libyan air defenses, reportedly to great effect. On Sunday and Monday, a dozen more cruise missiles were fired at additional targets (it was not clear if these were new targets, or follow-up strikes on targets already hit but not totally destroyed).

With the air defenses neutralized, the air strikes have moved onto other targets, including a command facility located on the grounds of Gaddafi’s presidential palace. British and American planes carried out long-range strikes, including the deployment of three American B-2 stealth bombers. The attacks are clearly taking a toll — French and Canadian jets flew patrols over Libya on Monday and encountered zero resistance, likely a testament to the damage inflicted on Libya’s defenses. (During one such patrol, a French jet fired upon and destroyed a Libyan armored vehicle.)

No doubt looking for a way to preserve his military, Gaddafi has again declared that his forces will implement a ceasefire. This was swiftly rejected by the allies, and with good reason. The first ceasefire offered by Gaddafi, immediately after Thursday’s UN Security Council Resolution authorizing military force, was soon broken by the Libyan military, perhaps because they know what will happen to them if caught in the open by allied planes. Gaddafi must think the international community is foolish, gullible or both — there are reports that the Libyan military immediately broke even the renewed ceasefire offer and continued attacks. Maybe he’ll try again tomorrow.

If the third day of the allied efforts against Gaddafi brought any bad news, it’s that the allies are facing internal divisions and questions regarding who exactly is in command. Although the United States provided much of the initial firepower for coalition operations, it has not assumed command of the British, Canadian or French forces (though U.S. officers are said to be co-ordinating the various operations without commanding them).

Further, the United States is keen to reduce its level of involvement. Having provided its unique capacities to crush the Libyan air defenses, its British, Canadian and French allies are more than capable of conducting the ongoing operations on their own. President Obama is reportedly keen to avoid any repeat, or even the appearance of a repeat, of the Iraq War, in which America provided the overwhelming majority of combat forces, and virtually all the international criticism. “[America] will be one of the partners among many,” President Obama announced from Chile, where he is visiting as part of his ongoing Latin American tour.

That’s fair. America has shouldered the burden of defending the free world for generations, so its closest allies certainly can’t complain that they’re being asked to carry the burden in Libya. Indeed, to their credit, they seem eager for the opportunity. But in the absence of American leadership -- the default situation for most allied campaigns since the Second World War -- the reality of instituting a formal allied chain of command for the operation is proving difficult.

The mission is authorized by the United Nations, but it is not a United Nations’ mission. The Western countries committed to military action — America, Britain, France, Canada, Italy and Denmark — all are members of NATO. Yet NATO also contains Germany and Turkey, and both nations strongly oppose the attacks on Libya. Italy, which has offered up fighter jets and is hosting many of the other nation’s aircraft on its soil, has also seemed uncomfortable with how rapidly the allies’ actions have begun to resemble an outright war … and yet insists that NATO take command. The dysfunctional Arab League, which seems to be having trouble deciding where it stands on the campaign, is certainly off the table as a leadership option.

That leaves two less-than-ideal choices. The first would see the various coalition nations continuing their individual operations, co-ordinating them through a central commander, but each nation essentially waging a private little war against Gaddafi. That would mean the campaign would lose out on the benefits of efficient, effective co-operation and leave the allies susceptible to international pressure. If one chooses to drop out (after a collateral damage tragedy, perhaps), Gaddafi would be emboldened. The last option would be to see one country take leadership of the international forces. France would be a good candidate, as it has shown leadership in confronting Gaddafi. Whether British or U.S. forces would wish to be placed under French command, however, remains an open question.

Similar uncertainty surrounds the intended fate for Gaddafi himself. Regime change is not an explicit goal of the coalition at this point. U.S. forces are said to desire such an outcome; British military forces have ruled it out — interestingly, earning a rare public rebuke from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who clarified that Gaddafi would be a valid target if removing him would help protect civilians. Such uncertainty, aired in public, no less, does not speak to a well-organized effort among the allies, making a central, united command structure (under almost anyone’s command) strongly preferable.

Unless the allies can resolve their organizational difficulties and diplomatic differences, Gaddafi might use his deft political skills to find a way to stay alive and in power, even if half his country falls into rebel hands. Given his history of sponsoring terror against the West, such is an unacceptable outcome. The Western allies must not allow internal squabbling to give Gaddafi his chance for survival.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.