So last week, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was telling us that everything was going swimmingly in his alliance’s effort to force Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi from power. “We have succeeding in taking out a lot of his capacities, and now you see the opposition is gaining ground,” Rasmussen said Thursday. “We are making progress across the country so my message is very clear: time is up for the Gaddafi regime.” Over the weekend, we learned that Britain’s top military officer has filed a dissent.
“The vise is closing on Gaddafi, but we need to increase the pressure further through more intense military action,” General Sir David Richards, chief of the British defence staff, said in an interview in London’s The Sunday Telegraph. “We now have to tighten the vise to demonstrate to Gaddafi that the game is up.” Richards expressed the concern U.S. officials have been voicing privately for weeks: “We need to do more. If we do not up the ante now there is a risk that the conflict could result in Qaddafi clinging to power.” Make no mistake about it: a military stalemate would be a political disaster for the UN, NATO, the Pentagon and President Obama.
The challenge for the countries attacking Libya is that they are doing so under a UN resolution that calls only for the protection of civilians. The allied military forces have stretched that mandate about as far as possible, going after a wide variety of Gaddafi’s military assets as the war creeps into its third month this Thursday. In the past week, they have stepped up attacks on command-and-control sites in and around Libya, a clear sign they are out to kill Gaddafi despite all their denials.
An expanded target list incorporating infrastructure — specifically electrical systems and fuel depots — could be justified as taking out the forces that fuel Gaddafi’s military forces, Pentagon officials say.
Unfortunately, the leaders of this war have no idea for whom they’re fighting, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates made clear last Thursday at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune when a Marine corporal asked him bluntly: “Who are these rebels in Libya?”
The defense secretary said “I don’t know” at least five different ways. “The honest answer to your question is that with the exception of some of the people at the top of the opposition or the rebels in Libya, we don’t know who they are,” Gates said. “And I think this is one of the reasons why there has been such a reluctance, at least on our part, to provide any kind of lethal assistance to the opposition.” (But that, of course, raises a more fundamental question: why have we been willing to risk the lives of brave young Americans on their behalf?)
Gates elaborated: “We deal with a handful of people in Benghazi, but we forget about those who led the uprisings in cities all over Libya when this whole thing started. And who are they? And are they genuinely anti-Gaddafi? Are they tribal representatives? Who are they? And we have no idea who those people are, but they were the ones that led the major uprisings in Tripoli and a variety of the other cities. There are tribal elements to this, and I don’t think we know very much about the tribes that are involved and where their loyalties lie between Gaddafi and between the opposition and so on. And we have seen reports that there are some extremists that are fighting for the opposition. We see information and we hear from the opposition that they’re trying to isolate those people and get them out of the movement because they realize the risks associated with that in terms of international support. But the truth is, I think, frankly, one of the reasons that we have been as cautious as we have in terms of providing other than humanitarian support and some non-lethal assistance to the opposition is because of what we don’t know. And I think we have to keep a wary eye on it in terms of how this thing progresses.”
All of this makes U.S. military types anxious. They fear that if Gaddafi is toppled, his replacement, hard as it is to believe, might be worse. But the challenge is that the longer Gaddafi remains in power, the weaker the international community appears. Time is not necessarily on the allies’ side. As we have learned, in Vietnam and elsewhere, a measured bombing campaign might make the bombers feel as if they are doing something positive to change things on the ground. But it also emboldens those bombed. After they find they can survive the attacks, life, in one form or another, resumes.