Wednesday, March 23, 2011

War in Libya: which sides are we on?

A fractuous NATO will be asked to christen the US-French-British war in Libya as a NATO operation to be conducted under formal NATO direction. (Nicholaus Watt, et al, Nato to take control in Libya after US, UK and France reach agreement The Guardian 03/23/2011) There are a couple of Arab countries included for show.

But like much about this less-than-one-week-old war, the new arrangements sound hazy:

Obama, who spoke to Cameron and Sarkozy in separate phone calls during his tour of Latin America, agreed that:

• Nato will assume the day-to-day military command of the no-fly zone, using the alliance's military structures. The operation could be run by Admiral James Stavridis, the US supreme allied commander in Europe, who works from the Nato's military headquarters in Mons, Belgium.

• Political oversight will be provided by members of the coalition and not by Nato. Sarkozy will say this shows Nato is not in complete command, as it was in the bombing campaign against Serbian targets during the 1999 Kosovo campaign. In a traditional Nato-led operation, political control would be provided by the North Atlantic Council, the main political decision-making body of the alliance. [my emphasis]
Lots of considerations go into these diplomatic arrangements, including domestic British and French politics and those countries' roles within the EU and NATO. But it's hard to see who is going to be fooled into thinking this isn't a US-run operation.

In theory, it's possible for the coalition - in particular, the Obama Administration - to just declare we've done enough for the rebels and now we're halting military operations. But that would require a level of principle and boldness in governance that Obama has yet to demonstrate. Once we've committed to ousting Muammar Qaddafi - and we effectively have, otherwise the military operation that has unfolded makes no sense - the conventional logic of the situation will dictate that the US support some anti-Qaddafi faction in at least establishing a foothold that would look a lot like regional autonomy.

It could be a long fight. Steven Metz of the Army's Strategic Studies Institute writes of Libya in Libya’s Coming Insurgency The New Republic 03/20/2011:

History offers a number of sign posts that an insurgency will occur. Unfortunately Libya has almost all of them. At this point the political objectives of the government and anti-government forces are irreconcilable. Each side wants total victory—either Qaddafi will retain total power or he will be gone. Both sides are intensely devoted to their cause; passions are high. Both have thousands of men with military training, all imbued with a traditional warrior ethos which Qaddafi himself has stoked. The country is awash with arms. Libya has extensive hinterlands with little or no government control that could serve as insurgent bases. Neighboring states are likely to provide insurgent sanctuary whether deliberately—as an act of policy—or inadvertently because a government is unable to control its territory. North Africa has a long history of insurgency, from the anti-colonial wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to more recent conflicts in Chad, Algeria, and Western Sahara. Where insurgency occurred in the past, it is more likely to occur in the future. All this means that there is no place on earth more likely to experience an insurgency in the next few years than Libya. [my emphasis]
We're supporting an opposition movement based in the tribes of Cyrenaica against those of Tripolitania. Who knows whose side Fezzan will wind up on? No, this isn't an Orwell/1984 takeoff; Ted Galen Carpenter uses the Ottomon provincial names in Another War of Choice The National Interest 03/18/2011, where he warns:

Bush administration leaders greatly underestimated the depth of the divisions among Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, and that blunder contributed greatly to Washington’s headaches in that country. The Obama administration may be poised to make a similar blunder in Libya. Assisting the Cyrenaica-based rebels to oust Qaddafi will almost certainly provoke resentment from the people of Tripolitania. If the rebels split the country, that will become a focal point of resentment for those defeated tribes—and a new grievance against the West throughout much of the Muslim world. Even if the rebels attempt to keep Libya intact, the Tripolitanians are bound to resent Washington for their new, subordinate status. Either way, the United States and its allies are in danger of stumbling into a situation in which they are almost certain to acquire new enemies. That is the last thing that America needs. [my emphasis]
Phyllis Bennis writes in Libya intervention threatens the Arab spring Aljazeera English 03/22/2011:

The question remains, what is the end game? The UN resolution says force may only be used to protect Libyan civilians, but top US, British and French officials have stated repeatedly that "Gaddafi must go" and that he has "lost legitimacy to rule". They clearly want regime change.

The military commanders insist that regime change is not on their military agenda, that Gaddafi is not "on a target list," but there is a wink-and-a-nod at ''what if'' questions about a possible bombing "if he is inspecting a surface-to-air missile site, and we do not have any idea if he is there or not".
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