Thursday, March 24, 2011

The leaders don't appear to know who is in charge

There is an unreal quality to the western military intervention in Libya. Airplanes are flying, bombs are falling, but the strategic thinking in Washington, Paris and London seems focused on political perceptions at home. There is no clarity about what might happen to the Libyans, in whose name the attacks are taking place.

On Monday, things began unravelling like a playground game gone wrong. France and the United Kingdom disagreed over whether Nato should take the Libyan operation in hand. Italy vowed to regain control of its military bases used to launch air raids on Libya unless this happened. The United States announced that it would soon cut back on its military activities and allow the Europeans to lead. The US president Barack Obama stated that Washington wanted Muammar Qaddafi "to go", after the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, had said the US did not view Col Qadaffi's removal as a goal of Operation Odyssey Dawn. And in London, the prime minister David Cameron and his chief of the defence staff, Sir David Richards, disagreed over whether Libya's leader should be targeted.

To call what is going on a military-diplomatic train wreck may be premature; but unless the western states get a grip on their policy, we're surely watching a train wreck in the making. And Col Qaddafi is bound to emerge from the circus much strengthened.

Nonetheless, for humanitarian and hard-nosed political reasons, international intercession in the Libyan crisis was necessary. Col Qaddafi's brutality was never in question, and there was no reason to doubt his promise to inflict terrible retribution on the inhabitants of Benghazi had he recaptured the rebel stronghold.

In terms of national interest, the consequences of permitting a massacre would have been equally harmful. It would have encouraged other Arab autocrats to take the destabilising step of crushing dissent without fearing western censure. It would have sparked Arab disdain for the double standards of the United States and Europe, crippling their ability to shape outcomes in a new Middle East. And it would have put on the road thousands of young Libyans, angry with the west for having abandoned them to a butcher, ideal recruits for al Qa'eda.

It's in the implementation, however, that the western states have made major mistakes. Some will insist that the decision to pass a Security Council resolution came far too late; that it should have been taken weeks ago when Col Qaddafi was losing ground. Undeniably; but it is also precisely that delay, and the fact that loyalist Libyan units were on the verge of defeating the rebels, that generated the critical mass needed for a consensus at the United Nations.

More damning is that the leaders in Washington, Paris, and London failed to think their actions through. Mr Obama has not hidden that he regards Libya as a nuisance, and flew to Brazil on the first day of the air offensive to prove it. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy is too impetuous to act as a reassuring guide through the morass. And Mr Cameron frequently comes across as slick wrapping around a hollow vessel. Yet it is these three men who signed off on an intricate UN resolution whose broad mandate has confused even them.

What is the Libya endgame? No one knows. Resolution 1973 exceeded the establishment of a no-fly zone by authorising all necessary measures to protect civilians. Concurrently, the UN decision ruled out the deployment of ground troops. This replicated a major ambiguity during the Kosovo war of 1999, when it became obvious how difficult it was to protect civilians from the air, and even more so to dislodge the despots whose existence, by definition, endangered the civilians.

When the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, warns that a Libya breaking up into statelets is unwelcome, he implies that only Col Qaddafi's removal can prevent this. But Mr Gates led resistance against involvement in Libya, and, justifiably, has no intention of throwing American soldiers into the battle. But if so, why has there been minimal coordination between the western states and the rebels who, presumably, in the absence of American, French, or British forces, are needed to overthrow the Qaddafi regime? Worse, why do so few in Washington, Paris and London know anything about the rebels, on whose victory so much relies?

The Obama administration's intention to transfer control of the Libyan campaign to the Europeans will only aggravate matters. We saw what high standards of inconsequence Europe attained during the Bosnian conflict of the early 1990s, and Washington will never hand a blank cheque to the British or French by placing its pilots and sailors fully under their authority. American leadership is a must. Yet Mr Obama won't lead and won't allow others to lead either.

The solution to this muddle? A lot of luck, but also an urgent tightening of the objectives in Libya. Whether they like it or not, the western powers are lining up to get rid of Col Qaddafi, so it is past the time to determine who is in charge on the rebels' side - or help organise a credible Libyan interlocutor if no one stands up. At the same time, the Libyan leader must be offered a negotiated exit. Countries like Turkey or Russia can help in this respect. Cornering the regime will only induce it to fight harder. On the other hand, signs that Col Qaddafi is willing to bargain may fragment his support base.

Most important, the Obama administration should stop behaving like an ostrich. Washington cannot be both in and out of the conflict, and doesn't have the luxury of pretending to be a secondary power. Either it must take command in Libya, or no one will.

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