Scarcely three weeks after the U.S. military launched Operation Odyssey Dawn, the war in Libya is beginning to look like President Obama's worst failure to date. While official Washington and the political press have been focused on budget negotiations and the prospect of a federal government shutdown, a foreign-policy disaster has been slowly unfolding in the deserts of the North African nation that Col. Moammar Gaddafi has ruled for more than four decades.
It was more than a month ago, during a March 3 press conference, that Obama declared his intent to "send a clear message: the violence must stop; Muammar Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave." Gaddafi hasn't left yet, nor has the 68-year-old dictator indicated any intention of leaving any time soon, and the military actions of the United States and our allies do not seem calculated to force Gaddafi from power.
Least of all does Gaddafi's continued rule seem jeopardized by the poorly armed and ill-organized Libyan rebels. Since March 28, when the Benghazi-based rebels had advanced far enough west to threaten Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte, they have retreated more than 200 miles. The rebel retreat has entailed their loss of the oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Brega on the Mediterranean coast in eastern Libya and, as of Thursday, it appeared the rebels might even be on the verge of retreating from their forward base at Ajdabiya, 50 miles east of Brega. Further west, meanwhile, the rebels were grimly holding onto parts of Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, under a relentless siege by Gaddafi's forces.
Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, told a Thursday hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the military situation in Libya has developed into a stalemate. Gen. Ham's assessment may actually be a bit optimistic, as there were reports yesterday of "mass panic" among the rebels near Ajdabiya and their total defeat seems more likely than a decisive victory over Gaddafi's army.
The military shortcomings of the Libya rebels were dramatically illustrated last weekend when Geraldo Rivera of Fox News accompanied a group of fighters toward the front near Brega and came under fire. After being pinned down and then nearly left behind when the rebels retreated, Rivera angrily huffed that he was "as worried about getting shot in the back by the good guys as I was getting shot in the front by the Gaddafi forces." Describing the "absolute disorganization" of the rebels, whom he called an "unruly gang," Rivera warned against giving them additional arms: "I swear to God, if you give these people weapons more powerful than they have right now, they will be a grave danger to themselves and others." Nor was Rivera alone in this low estimate of the rebels. Another reporter in Libya described them as "a hapless bunch" armed with a "mishmash" of weapons "which few of them know how to use." Despite worries that the rebel forces are influenced by al-Qaeda operatives or other Islamic jihadists, their alleged extremism is clearly no substitute for military competence.
Military competence also seems in short supply among our NATO allies whose air power was supposed to keep Qaddafi's forces in check. Last weekend, a NATO strike mistakenly killed 13 rebels and there was another reported NATO friendly-fire incident Thursday which knocked out some of the rebels' precious few tanks and killed several more opposition fighters, prompting one angry rebel to ask, "Why did they do this? Do they want Gaddafi to win?"
It's a fair question. The problem, of course, is that the United States and NATO have intervened under terms that (officially at least) require a sort of agnostic approach toward the outcome of the fighting between Gaddafi's forces and the opposition. When the U.S. launched Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 19, it was in fulfillment of a United Nations Security Council "humanitarian" mandate, to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and prevent Gaddafi's regime from slaughtering civilians. So while Obama has made various bellicose declarations -- "The noose has tightened around" Gaddafi, whose "days are numbered," the president told CBS News last week -- achieving regime change in Libya is not part of NATO's UN-approved mission. Such are Obama's self-proclaimed "core principles" in seeking to avert a "potential humanitarian crisis" on behalf of "the entire international community," as he explained at a March 21 press conference.
Obama's eloquent expressions of his commitment to multilateralism aren't much help to the ragtag rebels fighting Gaddafi's army. Neither did the rebels derive any military gain from the decision this week of Italy to join France and Qatar in extending diplomatic recognition to their interim government, the Benghazi-based Libyan National Council. Obama's admirers who have sometimes compared their idol to John F. Kennedy might not find the comparison so flattering, now that the president has stumbled into a situation that is beginning to resemble the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
The most tragic aspects of this situation are playing out in the sands of North Africa, where anti-Gaddafi fighters are dying for an increasingly forlorn hope. (The military stalemate may result in something very much like Roger Kaplan's proposed idea for the partition of Libya.) While hardly comparable to the suffering of the Libyans, the domestic political consequences of Obama's foreign-policy failure are not to be underestimated. Many of his liberal supporters were dismayed by the president's resort to military intervention, and the prolonged conflict in Libya -- is it too soon to call it a "quagmire"? -- has helped push gasoline prices closer to $4 a gallon. Libya ranks only 18th among nations in terms of oil production, but the loss of its 1.5 million barrels per day is not insignificant, and crude oil is now trading at prices not seen since September 2008. Some analysts expect prices to reach as a high as $150 a barrel later this year, and at least one Democratic consultant has said the spike in fuel prices is a "mortal peril" to Obama's re-election prospects.
None of this is to say that the situation in Libya is entirely hopeless. Gaddafi's regime is being squeezed by economic sanctions, there are reportedly shortages of food and other necessities in Tripoli, and the dictator might be ousted next week or next month, for all we know. Three weeks into the first American military intervention of Obama's choosing, however, the prospects are not encouraging. The best support that New York Times columnist Tom Friedman could offer for Obama's Libya policy was his prayer that the president would be "lucky." That was on March 29, when anti-Gaddafi fighters still controlled Ras Lanuf and Brega. One report late yesterday described a rebel retreat that had turned into a "stampede" from Ajdabiya toward Benghazi. And so it appears that Obama's luck may be running out in Libya.