Gwynne Dyer: NATO governments running out of options in Libya

They swore blind that there would never be foreign “boots on the ground” in Libya, but as NATO’s campaign against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime enters its third month it is getting a lot closer to the ground. It started with Tomahawk missiles fired from over the horizon; then it was fighter-bombers firing guided weapons from a safe height; now it’s helicopter gunships skimming the ground at zero altitude. They’re getting desperate.

In London on May 25, Prime Minister David Cameron said that “the president and I agree we should be turning up the heat on Libya”. Standing beside him, President Barack Obama declared that, “given the progress that has been made over the last several weeks”, there will be no “let-up in the pressure that we are applying”.

And you have to ask, what progress? The front lines between Gadhafi’s forces and the rebels are still approximately where they were two months ago, except around the city of Misrata, where the insurgents have pushed the besieging troops back some kilometres.

Tripoli, the capital, is still firmly under Gadhafi’s control. There has been no overt defiance of the regime there for many weeks, and the city is not even suffering significant shortages except for fuel. Are Obama and Cameron deluding themselves, or are they just trying to fool everybody else?

Maybe both—and meanwhile they are cranking up the aerial campaign against Gadhafi in the hope that enough bombs may make their claims come true. They must have been told a dozen times by their military advisers that bombing alone almost never wins a war, but they have waded into the quagmire too far to turn back now, and they have no other military options that the United Nations resolution would allow them to use.

They are already acting beyond the limits set by UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which on March 17 authorized the use of limited force to protect Libyan civilians. It has become a campaign to overthrow Colonel Gadhafi, and they hardly even bother to deny it any more.

“I believe that we have built enough momentum that, as long as we sustain the course we are on, [Gadhafi] will step down,” said Obama in London. “Ultimately this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we are able to wear down the regime forces.” Well maybe so, and maybe not, but in either case that’s not what Resolution 1973 said. No wonder Russia condemned the latest air raids as a “gross violation” of the resolution.

Russia did not want to stand by and let Gadhafi massacre innocent civilians, which seemed imminent when the defences of the rebels in eastern Libya were collapsing in mid March, so it let the resolution pass. So did China, India, and Brazil, which would normally oppose any military intervention by western powers in a Third World country. But it was all decided in a weekend, and they did not think it through.

Neither did France, Britain, the United States, Canada, and a few other NATO countries, which immediately committed their air forces to the task of saving the rebels. They destroyed Gadhafi’s tanks and saved the city of Benghazi, but then what? There was no plan, no “exit strategy”, and so they have ended up with a very unpleasant choice.

Either they stop the war and leave Gadhafi in control of the larger part of a partitioned Libya, or they escalate further in the hope that at some point Gadhafi’s supporters abandon him. The U.S. Air Force had a name for this strategy during the Vietnam War: they were trying to find the North Vietnamese regime’s “threshold of pain”. They never did find it in Vietnam, but NATO is still looking for it in Libya.

We’ll never know if Gadhafi would really have slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians if Benghazi had fallen. He was making blood-curdling threats about what he would do when the city fell, and he has certainly killed lots of people in the past, but with the eyes of the whole world on him he might not have done it this time.

Nevertheless, that threat was what created the extraordinary (though temporary) consensus at the Security Council. It was, for the West as well as for the other major powers that backed the original resolution, a largely humanitarian action with little by the way of ulterior motives. (And don’t say “oil”; that’s just lazy thinking.)

Gadhafi has been playing by the rules for the last five years, renouncing terrorism and dismantling his fantasy “nuclear weapons programme”. He has been exporting all the oil he could pump. He wasn’t threatening western interests, and yet NATO embarked on a military campaign that it knew was likely to end in tears in order to stop him.

Let us give NATO governments credit for letting their hearts overrule their heads. Let’s also acknowledge that they have been meticulous and largely successful in avoiding civilian casualties in their bombing campaign. But it isn’t working.

So what do they do now? They can escalate for a few more weeks, and hope that the strategy that has failed for the last two months will finally succeed. That might happen, but it’s not likely to. In which case the only remaining option will be to accept a cease-fire, and the partition of Libya between the Gadhafi regime and the “Transitional National Council” in Benghazi.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.



Mike Puttonen

May 28, 2011 at 11:08am

Canada's immediate and continuing military response to the crisis has helped the price of Alberta Crude climb, and climb again. Petro-state foreign policy?

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May 28, 2011 at 11:33am

I partially agree with Mr Dyer's comments regarding Gaddafi's attitude towards the West. It is true that all the Middle Eastern despots almost literally 'toed the Western line' since no-one can take advantage of the Sovereign country principle (essentially a Western idea, as is the entirety of modern political theory) and go on doing anything he wishes.
But I do have one doubt. All these despots (Saddam, Saleh, Gaddafi) had an equal, if not more fear of Al-Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalists' attacks as the West. They did a great deal to suppress any such ideals from their countries, which in turn acted as a buffer to the Global War Against Terrorism. Even if gaddafi had supported such movements in the past, it's highly unlikely he would support them even now.
From this viewpoint, was it wise for the West to take on such a pro-active role in Libya?

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Eduardo C.

May 28, 2011 at 11:37am

Let's not forget that Gaddafi is an Arab terrorist who has American blood on his hands, remember the Disco bombings in Berlin and Lockerbie ???? Hello ?? !! He must be brought to justice !!

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May 28, 2011 at 12:18pm

They swore? They LIED! They always lie - whatever is said turn it upside down and sideways to paint the worse possible senario and there is your truth. It is not about gold, oil, water, feeding africa and the list of great things about Al Gathafi. It is about the new order of the old Roman Empire; the restoration of order. On its highest its about old debts being paid and on its lowest to ensure a continent of black folk don't overspill the boundaries and wreak havoc with European demographics, wink, wink. It is not about what the people want or there would be an election - but they know the the greenman, the Khadr, the St. George of today, Al Gathafi, would prevail. So we sit by to our ruin and watch as the maestros pluck the strings that make the puppets dance to their tune. When the food and water runs out and we are eating plastic rice the peoples of the world will salt the earth with tears. I will remember the one they called a madman who dared to dream and build a great river to green Libya and feed Africa. The one they called the strongman who stood by his convictions - one who could only be ruled by the Kings and Queens of Africa. "He came amongst his own", will they receive him?

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May 28, 2011 at 3:09pm

They attacked Libya because Gaddafi is not under control of the privately Rothschild-owned central banks. He wanted to introduce the golden dinar, and ask for payments of oil in gold. Libya is one of the world's largest holders of physical bullion.
Obviously, NATO will fail in its mission. If the Libyan people truly was against him, he would have already fallen, case example: Tunisia, Egypt.
These rebels are total thugs: there are countless examples on YouTube where they publicly hang people in Benghazi, publicly rape people, cut blacks into pieces, burry people alive, etc. These are the "media's" darling rebels.
Let's not forget that all these happened when the media wrote about "reports" that Gaddafi was bombing Tripoli.

Who believes this media anymore?? The most blatant example: BBC on the day of 9/11 reported 25 minutes earlier the collapse of WTC7 while the building was still standing live behind the journalist!!!

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May 28, 2011 at 5:42pm

Mr. Dyer is a generally perceptive writer. I have been following his articles since the 70s, and his book "War" explained things about the military mindset I still find useful in interpreting warfare. He's probably right about NATO in Libya, although had we done nothing there would be Rwanda-style second-guessing aplenty.

But: "We’ll never know if Gadhafi would really have slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians if Benghazi had fallen. He was making blood-curdling threats about what he would do when the city fell, and he has certainly killed lots of people in the past, but with the eyes of the whole world on him he might not have done it this time."

Weak and unsupported assertion. The "eyes of the whole world" have been on him a long time, since Lockerbie at least, and certainly since February. "Might not have done it" doesn't cut it; would Dwyer have wanted to have been in Benghazi when it fell, and take his chances? And have been female too, for example, as long as we're supposing? Please. He could have cut that ¶ and not missed it at all.

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myna lee johnstone

May 28, 2011 at 6:48pm

just send in the Seals

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May 28, 2011 at 7:08pm

Great article - imo.

There is but one sentence that I disagree with -
'Let us give NATO governments credit for letting their hearts overrule their heads.'

Politicians are obviously human. But I do not think for one minute that the politicians that were behind this in the West had good intentions. I do not for one SECOND think they were thinking with their 'hearts'. I think they were thinking with their egos.
My guess is they felt so uncharacteristically powerless when the Middle East was re-ordering itself (through peaceful means) - and they did not like it. Their puppets were falling one-by-one.
Then Libya pops up and suddenly they can have a hand in it and make it look like they are the good guys (even though they do nothing while peace-loving Syrians/Bahrainians/etc. get slaughtered by their governments).

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Coast Guarder

May 28, 2011 at 11:37pm


I believe I speak for a number of folks here when I ask..."What the f@#K are you on about. Your post starts somewhat coherent and then quickly devolves into a bubbling cauldron of mixed metaphors (eg puppeteers or puppet-masters pull the strings which make the puppets dance AND maestros pluck the strings of instruments like harps not puppet strings) and confused historical/spiritual gobbledeegook. You obviously have something to say, so what's wrong with being clear and concise and avoiding the "opusesque" bombast and witchy talk? Hell I might even agree with you...but you lost me somewhere around the list of great things.

As far as the article is concerned, as usual Mr Dyer offers a well informed opinion. I don't always agree with his opinion, but in general I find his facts are correct and he expresses himself frankly. I do agree with most of what he's getting at here. I don't think the Western powers were sitting there waiting for this situation to happen. Every single NATO country was taken by surprise by the rapid and peaceful nature of the regime changes in Northern Africa/Middle East. I do believe that initially the motivation for involvement was humanitarian or at worse pandering to voters wishes. Have they since taken a second look at things and decided to see if they can remove Gadhaffi from power....probably. It is time to step back and let the non-combatant members of the UN Security council broker a deal between Libya and the separatists/rebels.

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Star Driver

May 29, 2011 at 6:09am

You honestly think that the initial motivation was for humanitarian reasons? Honestly? Put yourself in the shoes of a diplomat representing your country at a NATO briefing. Do you see yourself shedding crocodile tears at the plight of civilians from a country you have never been to? Sure, you might have a fact sheet prepared by an intelligence agency, but deep down inside you probably do not give a damn. Supper is in two hours and your wife and children are waiting for you back at home. I doubt that your primary concern is anywhere close to improving the lives of a Muslim family miles away. You sit there and try to conjure up plausible reasons for taxpayers back home should finance an intervention that will cost millions. No doubt in the back of your mind you are already coming up with how this scenario could prove to be beneficial to your country in other ways. It makes you so giddy that you have trouble sleeping that night. So much for not having ulterior motives.

International relations as they are makes it almost impossible for any UN mandate to be approved purely for humanitarian reasons. Come on, be honest with yourself.

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