The muddle at the middle of NATO's Libya efforts

April 25, 2011 - 0:0

When considering the mess that the U.S. and its NATO allies have got themselves into in Libya, it's helpful to remember the old story of the Irish traveler who asked a farmer for the quickest way to Dublin, came the reply: “I wouldn't start from here.”

NATO's actions in Libya are authorized under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which, in addition to establishing a no-fly zone, permits “all necessary protect civilians and civilian authorities under threat of attack.” The resolution includes lots of language condemning the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, and identifies the situation in Libya as a “threat to international peace and security,” but its objectives are strictly limited: they do not extend to justifying the military overthrow of Gaddafi's regime.
There's no doubt about this. We have it from the horse's mouth. In his speech on March 28, Barack Obama said that while “there is no question that Libya...would be better off with Gaddafi out of power,” and that while he and others have “embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means, broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.”
I argued a couple of weeks ago that there is a profound illogicality at the heart of this policy. If a regime is treating its people so monstrously that military intervention from the outside is justified, then it is ludicrous to suppose that such a situation can end appropriately with that regime still in place. If so, what was the point of the humanitarian intervention in the first place? But this muddle at the heart of the policy of the U.S. and its allies - a muddle explained by the fact if Res. 1973 had appeared to call for regime change, it would not have stood a prayer at the UN - is not the only one.
Res. 1973 establishes a no-fly zone in Libya and appears to permit “all necessary measures” in pursuit of its humanitarian objectives. But that carte blanche is explicitly qualified in two significant ways. First, the resolution excludes the possibility of a “foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” Second (albeit in a preamble, not in the dispositive text of the resolution) the Security Council reaffirmed its “strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity” of Libya. So no significant “boots on the ground,” no attempt to recognize Cyrenaica - rebel-held eastern Libya - as a de facto independent state.
I'll leave it to international lawyers to parse whether the plans by European nations to assist in training rebel forces are lawful under Res. 1973. But that apart, help to the rebels is pretty much limited to bombing of Gaddafi's forces, either by manned planes or drones. That has not yet been enough to turn the back-and-forth war along the Mediterranean in the rebels' favor. As the veteran military historian Max Hastings wrote in the Financial Times last week, “the allies are still providing enough military support to prevent the rebels' defeat, but not enough to end the bloodshed or achieve the declared objectives.”
That will remain the case so long as the allies rely on air power alone. Since World War I, when those daring young men in their flying machines tossed bombs out of biplanes on to the front lines of the western front, politicians have loved air power. Smashing enemies into mangled flesh and bone from 20,000 feet is much less risky - I mean, to those doing the smashing, not to those smashed - than having to deploy your constituents' sons and daughters in a fight on the ground. Hardly surprisingly, early forays into air power were led by imperialist powers - the British in Iraq, the Italians in Abyssinia - reveling in their technological superiority over troublesome natives.
Such actions sometimes had the effect their protagonists intended. When the British finally arrested Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1930 after bombing his villages, he touched the “wings” on the shoulder of an RAF officer to indicate what it was that had beaten him. But without other armed support, and against an enemy fighting in urban conditions, able and willing to place its forces and artillery among civilians, air power is both risky - bombs don't distinguish between soldiers and innocent civilians, between local party headquarters and the Chinese embassy - and often ineffective.
NATO's bombing of Bosnian-Serb positions in 1995 did not on their own force Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to the bargaining table. It was the combination of the bombing and the impact of Croatian ground forces, who had just swept the Serbs out of Krajina in a ground attack blitzkrieg, that did the trick. Similarly, six weeks of NATO bombing of Serb targets during the Kosovo war in 1999 - and this included targeting civilian targets such as bridges and power plants in Serbia itself - did not on its own end the war. It was the combination of the bombing, with plausible NATO plans to invade Kosovo, plus skilful diplomacy to bring Russia, Serbia's old ally, onside, that made Milosevic fold.
Of course, there may be other actions that are being taken by NATO to degrade Gaddafi's forces that we don't know about, and let's hope there are. I suppose that NATO could expand its reading of “all necessary measures” to aggressively target Libya's infrastructure, as it did in Serbia in 1999, though to do so would risk significant civilian deaths. And one understands that in a war waged by coalitions, messy compromises and muddled logic are inevitable. “If we tried to overcome Gaddafi by force,” Obama said on March 28, “our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish our mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air.” Yes; but we are trying to overcome Gaddafi by force - honestly, why else are we flying all those missions? - and if we are serious about so doing, we do risk killing many civilians from the air. That is how air power works.
Of course, it may be - as a senior Arab diplomat said to me recently - that what the U.S. and its allies really need is patience; that somehow or other, in six months or so, Gaddafi will be out. (Who or what would follow him, however, is anyone's guess.) But patience, though a virtue, is not in and of itself a strategy. At the real heart of the Libyan mess is the old issue of ends and means. If getting Gaddafi out of power in Libya was the desired end of the U.S. and its allies, then they should have willed the means to make it happen. If they were not prepared to will those means, then they should not have said that their desired end was Gaddafi's departure. How can we solve the Libyan muddle? I wouldn't start from here.