Commentary Magazine


Living with a Stalemate in Libya

In a significant and thoroughly depressing article, David Sanger of the New York Times writes that President Obama’s hope that a quick application of power from the air would tip the balance against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and that Libyan rebels would do the rest has been dashed. “Now with the Qaddafi forces weathering episodic attacks, and sometimes even gaining, the question in Washington has boiled down to this: Can Mr. Obama live with a stalemate?” Sanger writes.

But while it may want Qaddafi out, the White House insists that the military action in Libya is intended solely to protect civilians, noting that the United Nations did not authorize anyone to overthrow Qaddafi. And that leaves Mr. Obama with a vexing choice, between living with a civil war that may drag on for weeks, months or years, at a gradually rising human cost, and becoming more deeply involved, either directly or through NATO, in a third war in a Muslim nation. “We’re not in a good place,” an Obama adviser acknowledged last week, on a day when rebel forces seemed particularly hapless and disorganized.

No, we’re not in a good place. And President Obama’s opponent in 2008, Senator John McCain, makes the point that a stalemate was inevitable given the Obama approach: “If we had declared a no-fly zone early on, three or four weeks ago, Qaddafi would not be in power today,” McCain said last week. “So now the Libyan people are paying a very high price in blood because of our failure to act, and because of this overwhelming priority of having to act multilaterally.”

President Obama appears to have chosen the worst possible path: to intervene in a half-hearted fashion, wishing and praying that Qaddafi would just leave instead of committing the resources to force him out.

The Libyan policy has been terribly mishandled so far, and the result is a stalemate. It is possible of course that events might yet begin to go our way; other nations might be able to compensate for the president’s errors in judgment. But if this stalemate continues there will be consequences, ranging from the welfare of the Libyan people to American national interests to the president’s reelection prospects.