Even the best-laid military plans, it is said, rarely survive first contact with the enemy. At the moment, America and its NATO allies are finding this out the hard way in North Africa, where they now face a stark choice regarding their intervention in Libya: stalemate or escalation.
The grass-roots protests that erupted in Libya in mid-February, inspired by the political ferment next door in Tunisia and Egypt, prompted a savage response from the country’s dictator, Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Over the month that followed, Libya descended into civil war, with regime forces carrying out indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas, torturing suspected rebel fighters, importing mercenaries from nearby African states and intentionally targeting civilians. Not surprisingly, the international response, when it finally came, was overwhelmingly humanitarian in nature. United Nations Security Council resolution 1973, passed on March 17, authorized the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace, as well as the implementation of “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians and halt Col. Gadhafi’s offensive.
And yet, in recent weeks, Col. Gadhafi and company have managed not only to hold their ground, but to at least partially turn the tide of the rebellion. This has presented NATO with a serious strategic dilemma: Should it double down on its intervention in Libya and seek to oust Col. Gadhafi by force? Or should it settle for some sort of protracted status quo that would leave the Libyan leader in power, albeit contained?
European leaders seem to be gravitating to the former option. Great Britain, France and Italy have announced plans to send “military advisers” to help the Libyan opposition with training and logistics, the crucial components of any sustained insurgent offensive. Arms seem to be flowing as well; persistent rumors suggest France is providing Libya’s rebels with short-range missiles via intermediaries such as Qatar. Other nations may also be quietly contributing weapons.
The United States, by contrast, has done far less of late. So far, the Obama administration’s biggest contributions to the fight have been the authorization of Predator drone strikes against loyalist forces and the allocation of some $25 million in nonlethal aid to the Libyan opposition. These steps fall short of the commitments of other NATO members and of attaining the political goals that the White House itself has outlined: getting Col. Gadhafi to step down. Team Obama, in other words, hasn’t put its money – or its strategic capabilities – where its mouth is.
Inevitably, it will need to. Reasonable minds may differ over whether our intervention in Libya, a country exceedingly marginal to U.S. strategic interests, was warranted in the first place. What isn’t in dispute is that having made the decision to intervene, the United States and its allies need to do more than simply muddle through. They must now unequivocally seek victory, as they themselves have defined it: the removal of Col. Gadhafi and his regime, by proxy if possible and by direct military intervention if necessary.
This certainly isn’t because regime change in Libya is necessarily a good idea. The West still knows precious little about Libyan politics, or what kind of political order might follow the Gadhafi era. Rather, it’s because, having committed its resources and prestige, a failure by NATO to finish the job would have catastrophic consequences.
Left intact, Col. Gadhafi’s regime doubtless will remain a menace to its political opposition and the Libyan population at large – one that requires an extensive, protracted international commitment in order to contain. Chances are, it also will re-emerge as an existential adversary of the West, perhaps even reverting to its historic role as a major sponsor of international terrorism. Most crucially, however, a failure to defeat Libya’s Third-World military decisively will demolish NATO’s credibility, taking the alliance’s future capacity for collective deterrence with it. All of this makes Col. Gadhafi’s ouster the logical objective of NATO intervention, even if its members – worried over the practical implications of such “mission creep” – are still hesitant to say so.
They shouldn’t be. The longer the United States and its allies fail to commit the necessary political, economic and military resources to make that outcome a reality, the more problematic our Libya intervention is bound to become. NATO, in other words, needs to learn to love the idea of regime change in Libya, and soon.
By Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.