Even before the signal was given to launch 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles from US ships and submarines in the Mediterranean on Saturday, questions were being raised about what UN coalition forces wanted to accomplish with military action against Muammar Gaddafi, and whether the measures authorized by the UN were sufficient to allow the coalition to fulfill its objectives.
If it is, as President Obama claims, a mission to “protect civilians,” then the war aims of the coalition are, for all practical purposes, in conflict with the United Nations’ resolution authorizing force. Resolution 1973 states that members are “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi[.]” However, the resolution excludes “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” The question then becomes how can the UN protect civilians from Gaddafi if regime change is not specifically spelled out in its instructions?
Micah Zenko, writing at _Foreign Policy.com,_ places the question directly on the horns of the dilemma. “[E]veryone who supports this maximalist objective [regime change] has approved only minimalist tactics.” Indeed, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have both stated clearly that Gaddafi “must go,” and that he has lost his legitimacy to rule. This has been echoed by all the major European coalition partners, although the Arab League stopped short of calling for Gaddafi’s ouster in its resolution requesting UN assistance for Libya.
How is this to be accomplished without putting “boots on the ground” and physically deposing the dictator?
In fact, the only way to “protect civilians” in Libya will be to create a physical buffer between Gaddafi’s army and innocent civilians who may be targeted in any post-civil war crackdown. No-fly zones and bombing alone won’t be effective against the kind of brutality already shown by the Libyan leader, as his forces have moved back into towns and cities that were once occupied by the rebels.
Strategy Page reports that, as the army recaptures these areas, foreign mercenaries move in and begin a systematic cleansing of opposition to the regime. It is unknown how many Libyans have already been killed, but the promise from Gaddafi to “show no mercy” to residents in Benghazi who oppose him gives us a taste of what would be in store for the Libyan people unless the dictator is dethroned.
Zenko argues that the UN strategy is “playing directly into Gaddafi’s hands” because the Libyan dictator doesn’t need his air force to defeat the rebels in Benghazi and he needn’t worry about a UN-led ground force moving in and assisting the opposition. Early reports suggest that the coalition has had some success in halting the offensive of Gaddafi-loyalists on Benghazi, and the rebels have resumed an advance on a key junction 60 miles from the unofficial rebel capital.
But trouble is brewing within the rickety coalition of Western nations and Arab governments. Amr Moussa, former chairman of the Arab League, issued a statement decrying the deaths of civilians as a result of the bombing, saying, “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.” He has called for a meeting of the Arab League on Monday to discuss the matter.
In the meantime, most Arab governments have been ominously silent about the bombing campaign that the Libyan government – with no independent confirmation – says has claimed more than 50 innocent lives, including children. Qatar is the only Arab government to offer support for the campaign. Western intervention in Arab lands is a touchy subject with “Arab street,” and the leaders don’t want to seem to be getting too far out ahead of the people.
You may recall that it was an Arab League resolution asking the UN to establish a no-fly zone that was responsible for the US flip-flop on intervention in Libya. Apparently, civilian casualties are not part of the bargain as far as the League is concerned, which makes it even harder to imagine how the unstated, but implied goal of removing Gaddafi can be achieved while keeping Arab governments from bolting the coalition.
President Obama and our Western allies are out on a limb with this military action. Unless a way can be found to dislodge Gaddafi from power, the UN, and by extension the US and its allies, will be seen as toothless in the face of brutal aggression against civilians, and the concept of “humanitarian war” will be discredited. It is 600 miles from Benghazi to the capital city of Tripoli with many pro-government strong points to take along the way. The rebels are without heavy arms, armor, artillery, a unified command structure, and an air force. Would coalition forces escalate their involvement to include close-air support for rebel combat operations? As a logical extension of their mandate, it is difficult to see how they could refuse.
The cleanest way for this intervention to end would be in a rebel victory. But that would require a lot of hard, slogging work to unite the disparate rebel armies and political factions who have, at times, been working at cross-purposes. At present, we barely even know who we are supporting in Libya. There are ex-Gaddafites, exiled human rights activists, reform-minded lawyers, and probably al-Qaeda terrorists.
Writing in Pajamas Media, John Rosenthal relates some disturbing information about the Libyan opposition. According to a West Point study of records captured in Iraq, “[O]f the 440 foreign al-Qaeda recruits whose hometowns are known, 21 came from Benghazi,” while another 53 came from the Libyan city of Darnah. Rosenthal adds in a Tatler post that a French journalist accompanying the rebels discovered that many of the fighters believed they were engaged in “jihad.”
This would be extremely worrisome if the ultimate goal of the military action was Gaddafi’s overthrow. But on Sunday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called that goal into question by admitting that it was “certainly potentially one outcome” that Gaddafi could remain in power despite early calls from President Obama that he had to leave. This would put the United States in direct conflict with France and Great Britain. Both countries have made it clear that the mission will not be considered a success unless Gaddafi is deposed.
The Arab League might not like it. The United Nations might oppose it. But looking beyond the immediate future, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where Western powers would support the rebels only to a certain point, and then abandon them to whatever ineffective “peace-keeping” force that the UN decides to send in to act as a buffer between Gaddafi and his people. This is why, unless the rebels can be strengthened considerably, the chances of an air war dethroning Gaddafi are very low. And it should be noted that a previous UN resolution forbade member states from arming the rebels, although Egypt appears to be doing so surreptitiously.
Thus, the inexorable logic of the coalition war aims would give way eventually to some kind of invasion force going in to remove the Libyan dictator. No doubt President Obama will try his best to get the Arab states to take the lead in any such force of occupation, but given their reluctance to back the coalition in its efforts to help the rebels, this seems a doubtful proposition.
More likely, if it does come to initiating a ground war, given the tremendous amount of US military assets already in the region, it could once again fall to the United States to lead an army to overthrow a cruel dictator who oppresses his own people. It could very well be the US, with some help from our European allies, who finish it by invading and occupying Libya.
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