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.