Obama Speech, London Conference – Still No Clear Strategy for Libya

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by Paolo von Schirach

March 29, 2011

WASHINGTON– On March 28, president Barack Obama used the august podium of the National Defense University, (NDU), at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, DC to explain to America what his administration is up to in Libya. The speech was comprehensive and it probably succeeded in reassuring the people that the US was pushed into this engagement by serious humanitarian reasons; and that Washington, while strongly supportive of the efforts underway, wants other allies to be in the lead.

But the president also said that, while Gaddafi needs to go, it is not the purpose of this military operation to make this happen. Really? And I always thought that military means were used to secure political ends. Well, in this special case, we have military ops used only for humanitarian purposes that have nothing to do, apparently, with broader political ends. And so it is. This is US policy.

US policy now clear?

Most commentators applauded the speech saying that it made everything clear. Sorry, I am still confused, as I still do not see a strategy aimed at bringing this conflict to a quick end, with the pro-democracy Libyans, yes those who we are rescuing, ending on top. In most conflicts the end happens when one side (hopefully the good guys) wins and the other side loses. President Obama indicated that he is hopeful about Gaddafi’s eventual demise. But this will be as a result of the combined pressures of the embargo, economic sanctions and total international isolation; and not because of current military actions that are only humanitarian. And this also explains that, while we are shooting, this is not a “war”.

So, we have military ops, but only in pursuit of non political goals. Maybe. But it looks conceptually murky. Besides, if the end game –Gaddafi gone– has to wait until the sanctions will really bite, this may take a long, long time. But the summary from the president is this: ”We want Gaddafi gone. And this is non negotiable. Now we are shooting at him; but the purpose of the shooting is to make him back off, not to crush him. (And all this while we know and he knows that we have enough fire power to pulverize most of his equipment”).

The London Libya Conference

The president’s speech was followed by a big London gathering on Libya, with more than 40 countries represented, convened by British Prime Minister David Cameron on March 29. This was supposed to be and in some measure was an opportunity for the international community to re-emphasize its determination to save the Libyans.

All well and good. The humanitarian disaster that might have occurred, had Gaddafi’s troops really conquered Benghazi, has been averted. The NATO plus others aircraft provided for the no fly zone are now the de facto rebels air force. The military mission clearly includes smashing Gaddafi’s armour, artillery, transport and supply lines. This is good. And the substantial hits suffered by Gaddafi’s forces have emboldened the Benghazi Rebels who started a counter offensive, regaining some of their lost ground in the East.

All is well for the Benghazi Libyans?

So, all is well? Not really. If you are rooting for the Benghazi Libyans, now represented by an “Interim National Council”, while you have reasons to cheer, you also realize that nobody, either in Washington or London, announced a convincing coalition strategy, (NATO, non NATO Europeans and some Arabs), aimed at bringing this conflict to an end. We all know that beyond the humanitarian crisis happily avoided, there is an insurrection underway. While much has been hinted about providing support, no clear decision to openly aid the rebels was made. In fact, as British Foreign Secretary William Hague stated, the issue of directly aiding the rebels did not come up.

No diplomatic recognition for the Interim National Council

And, even worse, after all this outpouring of support, we are not even at the point of formally recognizing the Benghazi based “Interim National Council” as the legitimate provisional Libyan Government. Only France and Qatar have done so. And in London there were about 40 countries represented that did not follow this lead.

The US has finally decided to send a diplomat, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in its Tripoli Embassy, as envoy to Benghazi. But this is only for talks and the action implies no recognition. And yet, imagine the political impact of the 40 countries represented in London unanimously recognizing the Interim National Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. This would have been politically very significant and it would have boosted the rebels morale. But it did not happen.

Do we have a clear policy?

So, if we take all this together, president Obama reiterated on March 28 at NDU that Gaddafi has got go. So, that has not changed. But he also indicated that making him go is not the purpose of the military operations currently underway. So, coalition, (now NATO), aircraft are enforcing the no fly zone while smashing Libyan tanks, but they are not really aiding the rebels, nor is any of this “kinetic action“, (Pentagonise for combat), to be construed as part of the ultimate effort to defeat Gaddafi or to make him go. Got that?

This is the price we pay to cobble together a coalition

I can ascribe these conceptual contortions and half truths as the price to be paid when you have to keep together a multilateral effort. But this means that a multilateral consensus can be forged and may survive only if we define a very narrow, limited objective –helping civilians– without saying anything as to how this conflict may be brought to an end. Humanitarian intervention is an emergency measure, it is not a policy. And, as such, it is not sustainable.

Help the Benghazi rebels now

And yet, all know that the issue, if we could only wish away all the political constraints accepted to broaden consensus, is quite simple. The Benghazi Libyans, whatever their ideological and political mix, are the people who are fighting Gaddafi. If we are serious, they should be supported, massively, with whatever may be reasonable at this time.

Health care, communications equipment and armaments

Start with meaningful, tangible amounts of humanitarian aid. Resupply the Eastern Libyan hospitals now treating thousands of wounded. Provide whatever logistics and communication infrastructure, (GPS, cell phones, sim cards), may be useful. Help the rebels set up their own TV and radio stations, so that they can broadcast their message to the country. And then look at their military needs. A disciplined, well organized army is not improvised in a couple of weeks. But something helpful can be done. We all agree that Gaddafi’s army, while superior, is not a formidable force. If we keep bombing his logistics and supply lines, it will have less to fight with against beefed up opponents.

Worst scenario is a stalemate

The worst scenario here is a stalemate. We help the rebels survive but we do not give them the military help they need to win. So, Gaddafi may not be able to regain the whole country; but he is relatively secure in the West, as the rebels are too weak to defeat him. And in all this you expect the West under NATO to continue to enforce the no fly zone –indefinitely? The idea that Gaddafi will soon fall because of the pressure of the embargo and the sanctions does not sound realistic. This may happen. But it may be months or even years from now.

Policy-makers know what needs to be done

Again, this may be the best that a coalition based, multilateral initiative can provide: some good, but not the entire solution. Be that as it may, president Obama, president Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron and all the others know that the coalition effort underway should aim at ending the conflict sooner. A long, inconclusive stalemate will translate in partners peeling off and in postponing more and more the desired outcome of a more democratic Libya.


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