Critical statements issued today by Britain’s foreign secretary and France’s minister of foreign affairs brought into public what has become obvious to even the most casual observers of the fighting in Libya. The half-hearted NATO effort to prevent Muammar Qaddafi from squelching the Libyan rebellion is failing badly.
Both William Hague and Alain Juppé demanded that NATO intensify its strikes on Qaddafi’s army and protect the rebels as well as non-combatants from the dictator’s forces. While the criticisms were aimed at NATO, the real target was the United States. President Obama was dragged reluctantly and belatedly into this humanitarian mission. His mixed messages about its goals—the president demands that Qaddafi must go while proclaiming at the same time that America is not trying to effect regime change—have clearly undermined the NATO war effort.
Although the limited use of NATO air power has prevented Qaddafi from sweeping the rebels out of their strongholds in the eastern part of the country, a half-hearted military intervention is not going to tip the balance in favor of the insurgents. Rebel forces are barely strong enough to hold onto the territory they control. The calls from the African Union for a cease-fire and even the stated willingness of the rebels to accept some sort of halt to hostilities indicates that the anti-Qaddafi coalition is beginning to understand that it is losing the war.
Hague and Juppé appear to understand that once the West decided to intervene in Libya anything short of victory—which in this case obviously means Qaddafi’s ouster—will be rightly perceived as a catastrophic defeat. Obama’s notion that he could play the humanitarian while not dirtying his hands with regime change was absurd. While the president may think he is avoiding the mistakes that George W. Bush made in Iraq, he is accomplishing little beyond proving there is more than one way to turn screw up a war.
By delaying America’s entry into this conflict long enough to allow Qaddafi to recover from the initial shock of the rebellion (but not long enough to go to Congress for authorization for the use of force as Bush did in Iraq), Obama ensured that what might have been a quick and relatively easy campaign was transformed into tough, drawn-out fight. By not committing NATO forces to an all-out attack on the dictator, he may have created the circumstances for a stalemate that may leave Qaddafi in power and the country in ruins, the worst possible outcome imaginable.
The irony in this dilemma is palpable. The president elected as a multilateralist who would halt the supposed go-it-alone philosophy of George W. Bush needs to start listening to his allies. Britain and France are right. If the fight is to be taken to Qaddafi, he must be defeated. The price of leaving him in power after shedding blood on behalf of the Libyan rebels would be high. Not only would Western influence be diminished. The dictator would become more dangerous than ever if he survives. Settling for anything less than victory in Libya is a sure recipe for disaster.