The Mark News | 4.12.11
by Alan W. Dowd
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in general, and the Obama administration, in particular, deserve credit for agreeing to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973 in Libya. Moammar Gadhafi was on the verge of flattening the rebel toehold of Benghazi. Had he been allowed to carry out his plan, the result might have been another Srebrenica, or perhaps another Rwanda. Without NATO’s help, it’s doubtful the UN resolution would have been enforced. And without Washington’s help, NATO wouldn’t even have gotten involved. However, after agreeing to do the right thing, NATO and the U.S. are going about it the wrong way.
Let’s start with NATO’s latest war by committee. As before – in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan – NATO’s decision to intervene is producing its share of headaches. Dubbed “Unified Protector,” the NATO operation above and around Libya is not exactly living up to its name. Italy, for example, threatened to block the use of its airbases if NATO didn’t take full control of the operation. Germany, on the other hand, warned NATO not to try to do too much. France, which wanted to bypass NATO altogether and develop a Franco-Anglo-American command, is pursuing regime change. Turkey lectured the rest of the alliance about “pointing a gun” at Libya and is now freelancing a ceasefire deal. And the U.S. was always more focused on handing off the operation than on carrying out the objectives of the operation.
In fact, the U.S. was so eager to step back from the lead role that NATO now has to request assistance from U.S. aircraft before they will be deployed on strike missions. That presents a problem, since the U.S. accounted for 90 of the 206 NATO planes initially deployed in support of Unified Protector, and an even higher percentage of the planes capable of carrying out precision ground-attack missions. The U.S. Air Force’s contribution to Unified Protector has plummeted to just 39 planes, according to Air Force Magazine.
Not surprisingly, as soon as the U.S. receded into the “supporting role” promised by President Barack Obama, the intensity and effectiveness of the air war diminished:
• The Financial Times reports that “Britain and France are straining to fill the gap left by Washington’s decision to pull back.”
• “NATO has disappointed us,” rebel military commander Abdul Fatah Younis said after NATO failed to provide adequate air support to rebel forces in and around the port city of Misrata. “If NATO wanted to remove the siege on Misrata, they would have done so days ago,” he added.
• Similarly, Ali al-Essawi, the foreign policy director for Libya’s so-called Transitional National Council, blamed “bureaucratic delays” within NATO for “putting civilians’ lives at risk and complicating rebel efforts to fight the Gadhafi forces on the ground,” the New York Times reports.
Weeks ago, Gen. Charles Horner, who commanded the coalition air forces during Desert Storm, predicted this would happen: “Failure to fully unleash air power,” he warned, “will allow Gadhafi to play for time … and otherwise frustrate the coalition’s attempts to protect Libyan civilians.”
Equally worrisome are press reports indicating that allied bombs are falling in eastern Libya but not in western Libya, which means the regime’s centre of gravity – Gadhafi and Tripoli – is not being targeted. ABC News describes the situation as “calm in the west, chaos in the east.” That’s precisely the opposite of what the situation on the ground should be if NATO wants to cripple Gadhafi’s army and rescue the rebels.
Yet NATO’s own description of Unified Protector declares, incredibly, that “NATO is impartial in this operation.”
Really? NATO isn’t pulling for the rebels, assisting the rebels, and, as its operational codename suggests, protecting the rebels? Of course it is, and the alliance shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
That brings us to Obama. NATO’s lack of unity and clarity is partly a result of Obama’s approach to this crisis, which, it pays to recall, is different than the ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in at least one sense: Unlike those wars, which Obama inherited from his predecessor, Libya is Obama’s war from start to finish.
One thing we have learned from Libya is that Obama is very much a reluctant warrior. To be sure, there are benefits to husbanding U.S. military power – especially with U.S. forces so deeply engaged in, and/or committed to, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Asia-Pacific region, where a rising China looms. But there are also risks, especially in an era when so much of the world tacitly or openly depends on Washington to keep the peace – or at least to keep the bad guys at bay.
The president’s reluctance to employ U.S. force was evident even before he launched what his press secretary calls a “time-limited, scope-limited” operation. Take, for example, the president’s statements on Libya in early March, which made him sound more like the executive director of a D.C. think tank than the commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces: “We’ve organized,” the president explained, “a series of conversations about a wide range of options that we can take.”
Equally troubling, the administration has been anything but unequivocal when it comes to Gadhafi’s future. Before NATO bombs started falling, Obama said he was in “consultation with the international community to try to achieve the goal of Mr. Gadhafi being removed from power” (emphasis added).
Not exactly “Bear any burden” or “Tear down this wall.”
Although Obama has since called for Gadhafi to step down, his surrogates and military team have muddied the waters. The goal of the operation, according to Senator John Kerry, one of the president’s allies in Congress, “is not to get rid of Gadhafi” because “that’s not what the United Nations licensed.” White House advisor Ben Rhodes adds, “The effort of our military operation is not regime change.” Furthermore, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, concedes that a military stalemate resulting in Gadhafi staying in power is “a possibility.”
The admiral is right. A stalemate – or worse – is still possible. According to Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, Gadhafi’s “regime possesses the capability to roll [the rebels] back very quickly.” In fact, regime loyalists have retaken lost ground in recent days.
Moreover, unless he is ousted by his sons or his circle of henchmen, it seems likely that Gadhafi will fight to the last for Tripoli. Of course, as of now, NATO isn’t even forcing him to do that.
Libya has also revealed to us the importance that Obama places on gaining international consent to legitimize such intervening actions on the part of the U.S. The Obama administration sought, and has repeatedly cited, the endorsements of the United Nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the Arab League for the Libya intervention. Setting aside the conundrum of seeking legitimacy from organizations that don’t necessarily find their legitimacy in the consent of those they claim to represent, building international support for military action has its advantages. Shared responsibility ideally means a shared burden. Of course, it can also mean that operations are limited to the lowest common denominator. And sometimes it means that the same amount of work is put into holding the coalition together as it is into carrying out the mission that brought the coalition together.
For example, while the Arab League asked for international intervention, it was quick to criticize the NATO air armada after the intervention began, and the GCC refuses even to call the allied response an “intervention.”
That’s not the only thing members of the coalition disagree on; the meaning of the UN resolution is also open to debate. France and Britain view it as a license for deep involvement to the point of arming the rebels, clearing a path to Tripoli, and even ousting Gadhafi. The GCC and Turkey are content with enforcing the no-fly zone. Some, like Germany, don’t seem to want to do anything at all. Others, like Canada, are dutifully fulfilling their alliance obligations. And still others, like the U.S., are “doing more than nothing but less than enough,” as Senator John McCain puts it.
This is not to say that Unified Protector is doomed to fail, but rather that “time-limited, scope-limited,” “impartial” wars are not the best way to solve problems like Gadhafi.