Libya: As Misrata Burns, The West Debates

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While the third-largest Libyan city, the rebel stronghold of Misrata, continues to burn — ignited by Muammar Gaddafi — the West continues to fiddle. Rhetorical war rages between European capitals and Washington, even as a growing number of European nations — including Britain, France and Italy — say they will be dispatching dozens of trainers to Libya to help its beleaguered rebels in their stalled efforts to topple Gaddafi.

Vice President Joe Biden tells the Financial Times — interestingly, a British-based paper — today that Europe, by itself, can handle Libya, while the U.S. deals with more pressing concerns — like Egypt. “If the Lord Almighty extricated the U.S. out of NATO and dropped it on the planet of Mars so we were no longer participating, it is bizarre to suggest that NATO and the rest of the world lacks the capacity to deal with Libya — it does not,” Biden said. “Occasionally other countries lack the will, but this is not about capacity.” Biden said the U.S. needed to decide whether it should be “focusing on Iran, Egypt, North Korea, Afghanistan [and] Pakistan” — or Libya. “We can’t do it all,” he said.

That’s red meat to conservative hawks like John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. “Our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president has gotten things badly wrong,” he writes in this morning’s New York Post. “By demanding Moammar Khadafy’s ouster while restricting US military force to the more limited objective of protecting innocent civilians, President Obama has set himself up for massive strategic failure.” He called for the U.S. to return to the military lead role in Libya and bomb the sand out of Gaddafi and his forces, or else risk another Vietnam.

No backer of Colin Powell’s doctrine of overwhelming force will be sated by the handfuls of advisers the three European nations have said they will send to help the Libyan rebels. Meanwhile, Gaddafi continues his brutality in Misrata. “Reportedly one cluster bomb exploded just a few hundred metres from Misrata hospital, and other reports suggest at least two medical clinics have been hit by mortars or sniper fire,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement. “There are also repeated reports of snipers deliberately targeting civilians in Misrata, as well as in other Libyan towns.” Hundreds have died in the past three weeks inside the city.

The problem here is in the execution. The U.S. is always enchanted with using a dimmer switch over the dining-room table — to use an inapt metaphor — when military force works best as a simply on-off switch. Once guns, missiles and bombs become part of the postal service — designed to send messages, rather than kill, destroy and get out — conflicts drag on, enemies are emboldened, and they actually get used to the pulled-punch pounding, once they discover they can survive despite it.

Libya says the British effort is doomed. “This is an impossible mission,” Khaled Kaim, Libya’s deputy foreign minister, told the AP. “To organize who? They [the rebels] are different groups. There is no leader. They are not well-organized, and I am sure it will be a failure.”

They are not well-organized, and I am sure it will be a failure.

At this point in time — especially to the innocents of Misrata — he could have been speaking of either side.