Now that we’re in, how do we prevent a long-term guerrilla war in Libya?
“Arms and the man I sing…” The Latin races are again on their way to North Africa, though it appears the French rather than the Italians will be on the scene searching for their Didos, and it will likely be some miles east of Carthage. Although “Operation Odyssey Dawn” suggests a long haul, a French landing in Libya is far from certain: air power alone might subdue the pirate of Tripoli, if no Juno comes to his aid. With American cruise missiles launched from destroyers and submarines flattening Gaddafi’s air defenses, French air wings can bomb the Libyan air force into paper clips, having warmed up over the weekend on tanks at the approaches of Benghazi, eastern seat of Cyrenea and the anti-Gaddafi National Transition Council.
Notwithstanding UN resolutions and authorizations and President Obama’s insistence that there would be no problem but for the way the Gaddafi regime treats its own people, it is not clear exactly what the war aims are here; but this could be to our advantage. It may be one of the rare cases when improvisation reduces the risks of getting pulled into a quagmire with no end in sight.
Now the whole matter could be over and done with settled if a coalition warplane blows the Guide to smithereens or if some of his loyal troops decide their survival depends on betraying him. But whether or not Gaddafi survives, is it certain that the Cyreneans and the Tripolitanians are better off staying together? Are we better off if they do?
If the coalition stays willing, and if Gaddafi grasps the out that was offered and as far as anyone knows has not been rescinded, there could be an opportunity to make everybody happy, even while feeling they have not got everything they want. This is the definition of a successful legal settlement and should be especially pleasing to our president. The thing to do is: destroy as much of Gaddafi’s military potential as possible, and cut a deal allowing him — or, if he is killed, whoever takes his place in Tripoli — to keep his beach front place in Tripoli. The London properties ought to be turned over to the new Cyrenea government for their embassy and overseas cultural center. They could hire professors and offer degree programs in Arab and African Studies, using unfrozen Libya Investment Authority funds (aka Gaddafi, Inc.) that had it not been for the Benghazi revolt would have gone into the pockets of London School of Economics bigs who tutored Moammar Gaddafi’s son Saif as he worked toward his Ph.D.
With both the Arab League and the African Union evidently opposed to any military action not directly related to protecting civilians, the several parties in this conflict will be happy to pretend a truce along these lines saves face all around.
If Gaddafi survives and his men do not betray him and we do not offer him a deal, he may fight on, as he says he means to. We do not know how well Gaddafi’s troops will fight without air power and mobile artillery; indeed, we do not know whether they will fight at all. On the other hand, it would be foolish to assume that because we call him a ruthless tyrant, his tribal and other supporters feel the same way about him, or do not find the alternatives worse. Do we want a long guerrilla war in Libya?
Gaddafi is no Abd el-Khader, the Algerian patriot who outgeneraled the vastly superior French for over a decade in the mid-19th century, and he is no Idris, the Libyan leader who took the anti-Ottoman banner of his 19th century uncle Mohamed el-Mahdi and carried it against the Italians in the 1930s and '40s, ultimately with considerable help from Anglo-American-Free French armies who were in the neighborhood fighting Nazis.
But how much do we know about who will continue the fight after the formal defeat of the Gaddafi regime and its replacement by — by what exactly? Southern Libya is an enormous expanse of desert. Neither we nor regimes in North Africa with which we have been cooperating militarily for over 10 years have managed to rout Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, hidden away in the Sahara from which it launches raids where and when it chooses. Do we know if the National Transition Council will be able to police its southern desert? In terms of minimizing risks to our own men and our allies’, and in terms of a better political outcome, it might be wise to let Gaddahfiah tribals, if they stand by their leader or even if they do not, keep some territory in the west, tell the Transition Council to take care of business in the east, put the oil fields (which are in the east) under trusteeship, beneficiaries to be determined later, and send the Arab League the bill for the whole operation.
This might not be acceptable to the spokesmen for the National Transition Council, who have vowed to maintain the country’s unity, and it is difficult to see the Arab League and the African Union endorsing a division of the country. The African Union already has expressed its disapproval of Operation Odyssey Dawn. However, its members have proven ineffectual in finding a solution to the Ivoirian crisis, sliding into civil war while the world’s attention is elsewhere, and their ideas about the Libyan crisis may not receive all the attention they surely merit. But if all options are on the table, why not add geography change to regime change in thinking this situation through?
MEANWHILE, WE ARE NOT THERE YET, and having the luxury to think unconventional thoughts presupposes an early and happy conclusion to the Libyan war. What do we do if civil war breaks out in earnest between the country’s different regions? Would it not make sense to disarm them all, tell them to get their own houses in order, and call us when they want some advice on setting up a federal system?
We have learned that nation-building is easier said than done, and since the Arab League and the media in the countries of the region are expressing all manners of mistrust of the coalition’s military strategy as well as its ultimate intentions (“neo-colonialism,” “oil,” etc.), we could at least suggest to the newly liberated Libyans and their neighbors that they ought not to prejudge our intentions. They are welcome to take over. And in fact this would please France and the U.S., whose war aims have been defined as strictly humanitarian.
Both Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy so far have played winning hands in Libya. Criticized for indecision and risk-aversion, President Obama’s overarching goals are to stay within the bounds of international legality and to avoid anything that appears to be a clash of civilizations. He does not want American boots on any more Arab ground, and to do this he feels he must chart a subtle diplomatic course between despotic but superficially strong regimes (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt in the early stages of the anti-Mubarak revolt) and the young people, assuming they are preponderantly young, who have been out demonstrating, and in some cases fighting and dying, for what they call democracy and change (if our translators and interpreters are to be believed), or maybe for bread and jobs, no value judgment intended. (Desideratum: better Arab-speakers and Arab-mind readers in the U.S. government and the U.S. media.)
Obama believes the West can get along with the Islamic world; for him, getting on the right side of history means pleasing both the tyrannical regimes of that world and the youthful reformers in such countries as Egypt and Tunisia and now Libya, though it is still by no means certain that the youthful reformers are not in fact Muslim fundamentalists or politically excluded tribals of varying age groups.
Supporters of the Bush freedom agenda doctrine believe that aggressive American military and political policies will bring about decisive changes in the political cultures of the region. However, no one, including Iraqis and Afghans who have been experiencing the freedom agenda for several years, had a word to say about the murderous assaults in recent days on Israeli civilians by terrorists using firearms and rockets.
Obama’s goals are successfully met by the attitude, call it policy if you will, adopted toward the Libyan crisis. By letting the Anglo-French take the lead in preparing for political-military action, by waiting for the Arab League to panic and demand the West come to the rescue, and by getting the UN Security Council to pass an unusually strong resolution (“all necessary means”) if not the strongest possible (it nixes occupation on the ground), the Obama administration pleases a wide breadth of players in this brutal game, possibly even Gaddafi, if he opts for the out that may still be on the table for him.
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