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Obama's Libya dilemma

  • 01 April 2011

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