Libya: Will the Farce Stay With US (And France and Britain)?

At some point in time, it will be critical to examine the historical record behind the French, British, and US intervention in Libya and why they dragged NATO and allies like Qatar and the UAE into such a gamble. It seems likely, however, that the choice to act came after watching the rebels advance with seeming ease towards Qaddafi’s overthrow and suffer what  still seemed like limited reverses. Given past cases, it is likely that regional, intelligence, and military experts  in each country all expressed caution and gave warning about the problems and uncertainties involved, but were overruled by their respective political leaders – who saw their staffs as needlessly cautious.

What is already certain is that the end result was a set of decisions that focused on short term considerations and bet on the outcome. French, British, and US leaders do not seem to have fully coordinated, but it is clear that they sought and got international cover from the UN by claiming a no fly zone could protect civilians when their real objective was to use force as a catalyst to drive Qaddafi out of power. They seem to have assumed that a largely unknown, divided, and fractured group of rebels could win through sheer political momentum and could then be turned into a successful government. They clearly planned a limited air campaign that called for a politically safe set of strikes again against Qaddafi’s air defense and air force, and only limited follow-up in terms of ground strikes against his forces.  And then, they waited for success…

American connoisseurs of schadenfreude can take some comfort in the parallels between this course of action and the equally naïve and dangerous approach used by the Bush Administration in Iraq. After all, watching a French President,  a British Prime Minister, and a Democratic President of the US repeat the Bush Administration’s failure to plan for the decisive and lasting use of force, fail to plan for the civil side of military operations and to support stability operations, and focus on short term goals without a realistic plan for a successful strategic and post-conflict  outcome is not without irony and touches of black humor. And as for historians, the whole thing is yet another demonstration that they have the world’s easiest profession; all they have to do is wait for history to repeat itself.

Unfortunately, there is nothing amusing about the fact that the lives and futures of some 6.6 million Libyans are at stake. The Franco-Anglo-American gamble now seems far too likely to fail at their expense. Moreover, it seems likely to  drag the other nations that support the operation into their failure -- along with part of the reputation of NATO and credibility of the UN.

The key problem is that farce is still being used as a substitute for force. It is just a little over two months since the protests began in mid-February, and the rebels seemed likely to sweep though Libya and take Tripoli. It is almost exactly two months since Qaddafi began to respond with air and helicopter attacks and the massive use of force.  It was early March when Qaddafi’s forces began a near decisive set of victories, and they were on the edge of victory in mid-March. It was this series of events that led to a UN Resolution authorizing on March 17th with  major US-led coalition air strikes starting on March 19th.

In the month that has followed, it has become all too clear that gambling on Qaddafi caving in has created a far more serious humanitarian crisis for the Libyan people than would ever have occurred if the Coalition had acted decisively from the start and had directly attacked Qaddafi, his centers of power, and the military forces loyal to him. The humanitarian cost of humanitarian restraint is all too clear: Hundreds of Libyan and foreign workers have been killed, thousands injured, thousands more arrested and sometimes tortured, and hundreds of thousands lack jobs, security, and safe conditions of life.

And yes, the farce is still with us. A weak, divided, poorly led, and badly equipped and supplied set of rebel forces can only hang on with the present level of air support. Yesterday’s announcement that  British and French military advisors are going to help is not going to alter that situation quickly. It will take months more – at a minimum – to properly train and equip them and it will take a radical shift in rebel leadership to give them meaningful unity and discipline.

In the interim an enduring war of attrition will turn a minor humanitarian crisis into a major one – driven by the reality that Libya has to import over 75% of its food, and the Qaddafi regime was so corrupt and self-serving that the CIA estimates that 30% of the population was unemployed, and one-third was at the poverty line before the crisis began.

Ugly and tragic as the reality is, only luck and a sudden collapse of Qaddafi’s nerve will now change this situation unless force is used instead of farce. There is no need for new UN Resolutions, but France, Britain, the US and other participating members of the Coalition that want to really help the Libyan people need to use the vagueness of the existing resolution to achieve decisive results.

France, Britain, the US and other participating members of the Coalition need to shift to the kind of bombing campaign that targets and hunts down Qaddafi’s military and security forces in their bases and as they move – as long before they engage rebel forces as possible. Qaddafi, his extended family, and his key supporters need to be targeted for their attacks on Libyan civilians, even if they are collocated in civilian areas. They need to be confronted with the choice between exile or death, and bombing needs to be intense enough so it is clear to them that they must make a choice as soon as possible.

This kind of operation cannot be “surgical’ – if “surgical” now means minimizing bloodshed regardless of whether the patient dies. Hard, and sometimes brutal, choices need to be made between limited civilian casualties and collateral damage during the decisive use of force and an open-ended war of attrition that will produce far higher cumulative civilian casualties and collateral damage. The Coalition will also need to avoid the trap of blundering into some kind of ceasefire, where Qaddafi’s forces and unity will give him the advantage. This will be a “peace” that simply becomes a war of attrition and terror campaign by other means.

At the same time, France, Britain, and the US now have a special obligation to both finish what they started in military terms, and deal with the aftermath. A post-conflict Libya will need extensive help in building a workable political  system, in rebuilding the capability to govern, in both rebuilding the existing economy and correcting for decades of Qaddafi’s reckless and constantly shifting eccentricities. It will need coordinated humanitarian relief. Force alone will simply be another form of farce.