Obama's Libya dilemma


Gaddafi's forces have unexpectedly counter-attacked, pushing rebel fighters further back to the east, recapturing a strategic oil town Ras Lanouf and threatening to retake another oil town Brega, closer to the rebel centre Benghazi.

Following the massive destruction of Gaddafi's tanks and heavy artillery by US and NATO airstrikes over the past week, Gaddafi's professional soldiers changed tactics to small groups of lightly motorised well-armed fighters, who in open country warfare can still prevail, thanks to their better weapons and familiarity in their use, over poorly armed and untrained resistance fighters.

NATO now faces difficult choices regarding how to step up their military support of the resistance: by more intensive aerial bombardment (which runs greater risks of accidentally killing resistance fighters); engaging in clandestine arms supplies to rebels, despite the declared international arms embargo; or even inserting clandestine special forces fighters to help the resistance.

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All three options carry risks, yet without additional support, the resistance could again be driven back to the outskirts of Benghazi by Gaddafi soldiers. NATO would then have to decide quickly whether to bomb Gaddafi's Tripoli command and control assets, which it has so far refrained from doing, or put peacekeepers on the ground.

On a global canvas, the war goes better for the resistance, although Gaddafi is like a master chess player who fights on stubbornly even after losing his queen, hoping for a mistake by his opponents.

President Obama gave an assured, coherent public defence of US policy two days ago. He explained why the US had to intervene to defend the safety of Libyan civilians at risk of imminent death from their vengeful, murderous ruler. He explained, convincingly, why the US needed to act here even though there are many cases around the world of bad rulers being left undisturbed.

He also explained why it was necessary for him to wait until the UN Security Council and Arab League had endorsed US military intervention in Libya, and why the US could not now pursue regime change in Libya by military force but had to leave this to local forces.

On these last two points, Obama aroused the anger of the American unilateralist political tradition. Major Republican figures John McCain and Rudy Guiliani argued that America looks weak and irresolute if it does not quickly go in with force on the ground to topple Gaddafi.

These views show no appreciation of the finely poised international environment the US and NATO face over Libya, following the damage wrought to American global prestige by George Bush's illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the horrors that followed from that decision.

Obama knows the mood could sour quickly in the Middle East and Arab world if the US were to exceed the UN Security Council mandate by going into Libya with US ground forces, probably incurring collateral civilian casualties in the fog of war.

Yet if the war drags on, Obama will face increasing domestic criticism. Americans are anxious to see stability restored to their oil supplies and prices, and will press for an early outcome in Libya.

Gaddafi — mad but crafty — will try to drag out the war. He probably has enough cash on hand, despite the freezing of regime assets abroad, to go on paying his mercenaries for some time. Fighting is their job, after all. They may not care that their leader's cause is lost. After the war ends, they will melt away to the south to fight another war, another day.

By any rational prognosis, Gaddafi cannot prevail. There is no way now that the US, UNSC Arab League and NATO could reverse their collective decisions that his rule is illegitimate. Their face is now massively engaged in the cause. Gaddafi must go.

NATO will do whatever it takes to protect Benghazi, whatever the collateral damage to Tripoli and its civilians. The responsibility for such a tragedy would be wholly Gaddafi's, in trying to hang onto power despite all rational pressures and inducements to step down. International media — which play a key role in this war — will continue to highlight Gaddafi's brutality and his resultant loss of legitimacy.

Behind the scenes, diplomacy is working hard for a safe exit for Gaddafi and key aides: most probably in Italy. There is ample EU precedent: the French Riviera is full of former African and Caribbean dictators, living out their days in comfort and security under deals struck with Paris. Let us hope Genoa or Sanremo will similarly tempt Gaddafi.

At risk of being proved wrong, I predict the endgame is approaching in Libya. 

Tony KevinTony Kevin retired from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998, after a 30-year public service career in DFAT and Prime Minister's Department. He was Australia's ambassador to Poland (1991–94) and Cambodia (1994–97). 

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, NATO, Gaddafi, Libya, Obama



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Existing comments

Here's hoping you are right and that the end is near. At least in Obama we have an American president who understands how the US is viewed from the Arab main street, even as he is bound to continue (unfortunately) supporting the likes of Saudi Arabia.
Kate | 02 April 2011

Your argument assumes that American public opinion is convinced that US intervention is in their interest to secure oil supplies. If Libya only represents a small fraction of US oil supplies how can this argument be sustained? I understand the argument that suggests the real danger for US interests lies in the possible contagion of unrest to the rest of the Middle East and that could seriously compromise US oil supply interests. Is that what you imply?
graham patison | 03 April 2011


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