US and Libya, a Matter of Leadership

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By Paolo von Schirach

March 19, 2011

WASHINGTON – Where is America’s leadership in this Libya operation –in it, so far: France, Great Britain, The US, Canada and Italy– with the bizarre name of “Odyssey Dawn”? (Who the hell came up with that)? America is “in”, no question about that; but it is not leading and it wants the whole world to know it, by proclaiming that, beyond the cruise missiles attacks targeting Libyan air defenses and probably command and control nodes, in a matter of days rather that weeks, it will take a back seat, letting others (wbo?) conduct most military operations.

Confusion about US role

The way it has been presented, this whole thing of US role, going back to the incewption of the uprisng in Lybia in February, is quite confusing. It has given observers the impression that America was and is uncertain about what to do about Gaddafi and the Benghazi based rebellion and how much it intends to do. In principle there would have been nothing wrong if president Obama would have said, from the very beginning of this crisis, that the US, while supportive and politically in full agreement with those who want to help the Benghazi Libyans, has its hands full in Afghanistan and therefore is only too happy to defer to Paris, London and whoever else. “As we deal with an ongoing, complicated conflict in Afghanistan, you take care of Gaddafi”. Nothing wrong with an upfront division of labor among like minded allies. Except it did not happen this way.

The world waited for the US to lead

In a sense, the world, and certainly the major European allies, were deferring to the US at the beginning of the Libyan uprising. Let America set the stage and provide leadership. But president Obama, by dithering on next steps, after having repeatedly declared that Colonel Gaddafi lost his legitimacy and thus has to leave his job, kept everybody guessing as to what America would do to physically dislodge him from power. And this is not good for US international standing and credibility.

Last minute March 17 UN vote

In the end, there was the UN March 17 vote, with the US clearly on board, followed by the beginning of military operations with obvious US active participation. But let us not forget that the UN vote came only at the very last minute, when the situation in Libya was desperate and Benghazi was about to be taken over. And UN action started as a French-British, not US, draft Resolution.

Only about protecting civilians?

After the vote, president Obama stressed that US military participation is limited, thta it is about protecting civilians, and that it will be mostly in a support capacity, as opposed to leading the charge. No connection made publicly between the initially declared political goal of getting rid of Gaddafi, (I hope this is still on the table), and the use of military power against him by either the president, Secretary of State Clinton or anybody else. (And I still thought that the purpose of war is to bend political will and obtain political objectives. If we really have to believe the letter of the UN Resolution, the only goal here is to protect Libyan civilians. Yes, we do that. And then what happens? We go home with a chastised Gaddafi still in power?)

Is it possible to keep a low profile?

This is all political, of course. There is a deliberate effort to minimise the US role, to say that the engagement will be small and temporary. But if this is political, frankly I fail to see the benefits. Just like you cannot be “a little bit pregnant”, the US cannot be “a little bit in a conflict”. If America is out, then it is “out”, completely. But if it is “in”, given its well known military resources and historic presence in the region, as a matter of public perception, it is “in” all the way. True or not true it does not matter.

Better to go in all the way

Therefore America, once it decided to participate, might as well throw all it has got at the enemy in order to cripple Gaddafi; this way making the conflict short. Inflict a major blow to Gaddafi and provide strong reinforcements to the Benghazi Libyans. After suffering a crushing hit, it would be surprising to see a spirited response by Gaddafi’s decimated forces, except the die hard who know that they have no place to go, once their leader is out of the picture. Now, this –a decisive, short intervention– would matter politically.

Winning this one cannot be that hard

In all this, given America’s low profile and an as yet to be defined “coalition of the willing”, (beyond its French and British core), the major good news regarding the beginning of military operations against Gaddafi on march 19 is that the enemy is only Muammar Gaddafi.

But what is the goal?

Indeed, whatever the degree of coordination among the countries so far participating, the mission should not be that hard. Except that we do not know what the “real” mission is, at least not based on what is officially on record. Weeks ago, the loud proclamations, starting in Washington, were that Gaddafi needed to go, for he is a failed leader who shoots his own people. Not much of a need to substantiate this charge. But then, condemnations notwithstanding, nobody did anything.

Then, when it became obvious that Gaddafi was actually winning against the Benghazi rebels, there has been the March 17 UN vote. Except that the language of Resolution 1973/2011, while broadly authorising the use of force, says that the purpose of such force is to protect civilians. It says nothing about “regime change” –which is precisely what was openly advocated beforehand in Washington and elsewhere.

Do we still have regime change on the agenda?

So, here we have quite a bit of confusion regarding what the real purpose of UN sanctioned military operations now underway should be. Unless we cynically agree that it does not matter and that the point of a UN vote was only to get a formal green light. With that done, thereafter is catch as catch can, as the Security Council Resolution provided a sufficiently vague cover under which we can do almost anything.

A “coalition of the willing” is in charge

Be that as it may, in Libya we see the emergence of another “coalition of the willing”. But it is an improvised affair, with more countries probably joining in; but only as individual participants, because regional groups are not in. The European Union, EU, has really no real mandate nor dedicated defense structures. The member states, all 27 of them, meet and talk. But essentially they EU as an institution is powerless. So, take the EU out of the picture.

Will NATO have a role?

Then there is the 28 member strong NATO Alliance. (There is major overlap between EU members and European members of NATO). Well, this is a different story, at least in principle. In NATO you have an integrated military command structure and systems in place. Except that there does not seem to be a NATO-wide consensus on what to do about Libya.

NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last week that NATO was ready to go, as long as there was need, regional support and a UN Security Council vote that would authorise action. Well, now we’ve got all the above.

Yet, NATO as an Alliance does not seem to be all that eager to engage. Just to mention one key missing element, Germany, by far the most important European country and a key NATO member, abstained in the UN Security Council vote on March 17. Not exactly what you would call a ringing endorsement. So, NATO eventually may decide to act as an institution. But this may probably amount to giving a nod to what is already happening: a few NATO countries are engaged in the operation in Libya anyway. Others may at best provide logistical support.

The real issue is America’s role

But the real issue is America, as world leader and as leading NATO member. President Obama says he wants to do as little as possible, hoping that keeping a relatively low profile will avoid political damage. I indicated above that if this is the objective, I am not sure that it will work.

May be I am just sentimental; but, when America decides to enter the fray, I prefer to see it in front.