Possible Libya Stalemate Puts Stress on U.S. Policy
Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Published: April 11, 2011
WASHINGTON — Three weeks ago, President Obama ordered American troops into the first “humanitarian war” on his watch, vowing to stop the forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from massacring their own people. Mr. Obama’s hope was that a quick application of power from the air would tip the balance, and the Libyan rebels would do the rest.
Now with the Qaddafi forces weathering episodic attacks, and sometimes even gaining, the question in Washington has boiled down to this: Can Mr. Obama live with a stalemate?
Asked on Monday whether the United States could accept a cease-fire proposed by the African Union that would effectively leave Colonel Qaddafi in control of part of the country, Secretary of StateHillary Rodham Clinton hedged. First, she said, the Libyan government would have to allow food, water and electricity into cities it has cut off and allow in humanitarian assistance. Then, she added, “These terms are nonnegotiable.”
But she immediately reiterated that ultimately nothing could be resolved without “the departure of Qaddafi from power, and from Libya.” The statement seemed to underscore the limbo the administration finds itself in, with the rebels unable to achieve regime change on their own, and Washington and its NATO allies hesitant to leap deeper into a civil war.
Mr. Obama’s decision to join the military intervention in Libya may well be judged a failure if the initial result is a muddle or a partition of the country, an outcome that his own secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, declared less than a month ago would be a “a real formula for insecurity.” If the country’s civil war drags on, Mr. Obama will almost certainly have to answer a rising chorus of critics that he entered the battle too late, began to exit too early, and overestimated a very inexperienced, disorganized rebel movement.
Senator John McCain, the Arizona senator who ran for president against Mr. Obama in 2008, has been the chief critic, arguing that a stalemate was baked into the strategy. “If we had declared a no-fly zone early on, three or four weeks ago, Qaddafi would not be in power today,” Mr. McCain said last week. “So now the Libyan people are paying a very high price in blood because of our failure to act, and because of this overwhelming priority of having to act multilaterally.”
In interviews, senior administration officials urge patience. The first NATO strikes, they note, were only 23 days ago. Colonel Qaddafi, they say, has been badly wounded by the rebellion and is still reeling from the defection of a few key allies and the loss of billions in revenue that he used buy loyalty. Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, argues that the key to ultimate success is “continued messaging to Qaddafi’s inner circle that the writing is on the wall.”
But, Mr. Vietor added: “Unilateral, open-ended military action to pursue regime change isn’t good strategy, and wouldn’t advance American credibility anywhere. Stopping a massacre, building an international coalition, and tightening the squeeze on Qaddafi as a part of an international coalition is in our interest, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Over time, that strategy might yet work. But clearly the administration is gambling on catching a break — perhaps an army uprising, the gradual starvation of a regime addicted to cash, maybe a stray bullet or lucky missile strike that ends a dictator’s 40-year rule.
But as Mr. Obama frequently noted when he was in the Senate criticizing the American approach to Iraq and Afghanistan, hope is not a strategy.
Gary J. Bass, a Princeton professor who ranks among the foremost scholars of humanitarian interventions, noted recently that Mr. Obama’s caution about those two wars applies equally to brief interventions to save lives.
“Humanitarian wars, like all wars, tend to escalate,” Professor Bass said. He expressed sympathy for Mr. Obama’s position, he said, because “all the criticism he gets now is from a world that didn’t see a massacre in Benghazi,” he said, referring to the city that appeared on the brink of slaughter when the no-fly zone was enforced on March 19. “We’ll never know what that might have looked like.”
But Professor Bass added that the risks were high. “Modern civil wars last years,” he said, “and this could go on for a very long time. And when you intervene, people tend to say you have to intervene more.”
The longer Mr. Qaddafi remains in power, others note, the greater the chance that he will lash out with some attempt at retaliation, perhaps a terrorist attack outside the country that would have echoes of Libya’s bombing of Pan Am 103 more than 22 years ago. One senior counterterrorism official said that “this is a scenario that clearly has us concerned.”
Part of Mr. Obama’s difficulty has its roots in the fact that the American goal in dealing with Libya is at odds with the United Nations’ goal. Though this White House steers clear of the words “regime change,” officials make clear that is what they want.
“There needs to be a transition that reflects the will of the Libyan people and the departure of Qaddafi from power and from Libya,” Mrs. Clinton said Monday. That is also France’s avowed goal.
Other key members of the coalition also stood firm on Monday. “The future of Libya should include the departure of Qaddafi,” Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of Italy said in London, where he was meeting with Foreign Secretary William Hague.
But while it may want Qaddafi out, the White House insists that the military action in Libya is intended solely to protect civilians, noting that the United Nations did not authorize anyone to overthrow Qaddafi. And that leaves Mr. Obama with a vexing choice, between living with a civil war that may drag on for weeks, months or years, at a gradually rising human cost, and becoming more deeply involved, either directly or through NATO, in a third war in a Muslim nation.
“We’re not in a good place,” an Obama adviser acknowledged last week, on a day when rebel forces seemed particularly hapless and disorganized.