In a letter to President Obama addressing him as “Dear Son,” Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi urged the president to end what he called “an unjust war” and intervene with NATO to stop the bombing of his forces. Both the White House and the State Department confirmed the existence of the letter but refused to go into detail regarding what Gaddafi said. From what has been released so far, the rambling, nearly incoherent missive is one more strange turn in NATO’s campaign to “protect civilians” in Libya.
It is a campaign that is now bogged down by bad weather, a change in Gaddafi’s tactics, and the confused and contrary decisions coming out of NATO headquarters where the alliance cannot decide how much assistance they should supply the rebels fighting Gaddafi for control of the country.
In his personal plea to the president, a copy of which was obtained by the Associated Press, Gaddafi implored Obama in the name of “world peace” and “Friendship between our peoples … and for the sake of economic, and security cooperation against terror,” to “keep Nato (NATO) off the Libyan affair for good.”
It is clear from his letter to the president that Gaddafi has no intention of leaving anytime soon. The dictator wrote that building a “democratic society” could not be achieved using missiles and aircraft, echoing a familiar leftist complaint heard often during the Iraq War. Adding a surreal touch, Gaddafi wished Obama luck in his re-election campaign.
Both the White House and State Department are ignoring the letter, with Hillary Clinton telling reporters at a news conference with the Italian foreign minister that, “I think that Mr. Gaddafi knows what he must do,” And that “There needs to be a ceasefire, his forces need to withdraw from the cities that they have forcibly taken at great violence and human cost.”
Almost as bizarre as Gaddafi’s letter is the effort of former Indiana Congressman Curt Weldon who is in Tripoli with a small delegation, trying to meet with the dictator and tell him to his face that it is time to go. The White House says that Weldon’s trip has not been sanctioned by the government and that he carries no message from the president.
Weldon has some bona fides to back up his efforts to negotiate Gaddafi’s exit. He is the only non-Libyan on the board of the Gaddafi Foundation and has visited Libya many times, actually chairing an international conference with one of Gaddafi’s sons. But his standing with the dictator is unknown, even though one of the companies he worked for once proposed to refurbish and modernize Gaddafi’s aging armor.
Weldon’s trip is a sideshow to what is happening on the ground in Libya. Rebels are making little headway against Gaddafi’s forces despite NATO promises of support that the opposition claims, more often than not, fail to materialize. Pro-government forces have been besieging the town of Misrata for weeks. According to Reuters, one rebel on the ground in that key western crossroads reported that “There was firing on three fronts today, the port in the east, the center around Tripoli street and the west of the city. Mortars, tank fire, and artillery were used to shell those areas.” NATO planes were heard in the skies above but there was no support given to rebel troops fighting Gaddafi’s forces inside the city.
One reason may be “inclement weather,” according to Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Testifying before Congress, Mullen said that bad weather had “obstructed the view of coalition aircraft handling the airstrikes,” adding that US aircraft are on standby if NATO needs them. The only all-weather planes available to NATO without US support are some British Tornados.
Another reason? Pro-government forces have changed their tactics, says French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. Gaddafi’s army is now using human shields, hiding their tanks and artillery in what appears to be heavily populated areas. ““We’ve formally requested that there be no collateral damage for the civilian population … That obviously makes operations more difficult.”
This hasn’t convinced the rebels whose NATO-recognized commander, General Abdel Fattah Younes, is accusing the alliance of dragging its feet. “No, it’s not convincing at all. NATO has other means. I requested there be combat helicopters like Apaches and Tigers. These damage tanks and armoured vehicles with exact precision without harming civilians.”
NATO has been reluctant so far to use combat helicopters because Gaddafi’s forces are known to possess shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons that proved to be very effective against Russian helicopters in Afghanistan. Such caution has been the hallmark of the air campaign as NATO governments not only want to avoid civilian casualties, but also coalition casualties as well. The war is not overly popular in Europe and national leaders are afraid that the people will turn against the conflict if their sons start to come home in coffins.
While it may be admirable to do everything possible to avoid killing innocent civilians, the rebels have other complaints about NATO’s air campaign as well. There has been a slowdown in support for rebel attacks outside of the key city of Brega, with no explanation coming from NATO. The opposition was routed from that key western oil city and driven back more than 40 miles as NATO planes did not make an appearance. NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said that “the pace of our operations continues unabated. The ambition and the position of our strikes has not changed.” But the problem appears not to be the number of sorties, but rather where NATO chooses to assist the rebels.
The confusion about the conflicting goals of the UN mandate to “protect civilians,” while being prevented from affecting “regime change” has given NATO military chiefs pause when it comes to offering benefits to the rebels such as close air support. Whether by design or simply as a consequence of NATO’s attempt to maintain an arm’s length relationship with the rebels, there is little or no coordination with the rebel troops on the ground when they attack, or while they are retreating. If NATO patrols circling Misrata catch site of Gaddafi’s forces in the open, they pulverize them. But they are refusing to attack targets inside the city, despite rebel claims that most of the population has left.
There is also a question of timeliness of the attacks. Some rebels have complained that NATO is too slow to come to their aid. NATO denies this, but it is clear that in at least some cases, NATO’s creaky bureaucracy is at fault. The Washington Times points out in an editorial:
Part of the rebel frustration is dealing with the NATO bureaucracy. Coordinating attacks involves too many levels of command and takes too long to be effective. Of course, the Libyan rebels are not the best organized fighting force in the world either. Mr. Younis is reportedly not even on speaking terms with Gen. Omar al-Hariri, the rebel defense minister. The rebel chain of command is uncertain, command and control is chaotic, and strategy is virtually nonexistent.
General Younis made the shocking claim that some NATO airstrikes come 8 hours after they are requested. Is NATO’s “political committee” that was supposed to “guide” NATO military operations gumming up the works? Not much has been said of this body since its formation, and no formal statement has been made about its specific role in the operation. But an 8 hour delay sounds a lot like NATO is fighting a war by committee.
In NATO’s defense, Gaddafi’s forces appear to have abandoned traveling in military vehicles and have substituted jeeps and SUV’s as the preferred way to move around. By the time they reveal themselves as the enemy, they have already engaged the rebel forces and may actually have taken cover using civilians as human shields.
Meanwhile, the US and Great Britain want to offer a deal – subject to Security Council approval – to Gaddafi’s family and close associates that if they publicly abandon support for the dictator, the restrictions on their frozen assets and ability to travel outside of Libya will be lifted. Such wishful thinking highlights the increasing doubts being expressed by NATO officials that the air campaign alone will be enough to force Gaddafi out, and that only a palace coup, or some other stroke of luck, will rescue the coalition from either a bloody stalemate or worse, a Gaddafi victory.