David Sanger writes in the New York Times that “the question in Washington has boiled down to this: Can Mr. Obama live with a stalemate?” That the answer to this question remains so unclear is a testament to Obama’s failure to lead on the international stage in the way that we’ve come to expect from American presidents. The absence of such leadership is to blame for the rudderlessness of the NATO mission, which the British and French have begun to criticize:
The comments by William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, also appeared to signal a rift within NATO only eight days after it assumed command from the United States for the air campaign over Libya…
While the pace of NATO air attacks appeared to pick up Monday in the battleground between Ajdabiya and the oil town of Brega in eastern Libya, rebel leaders have complained bitterly of a lull that seemed to coincide with the handoff of responsibility from the allied coalition to NATO. NATO pilots were also involved in two friendly-fire incidents that killed well over a dozen rebel fighters.
NATO has been criticized for a go-slow approach in the rebel-held western city of Misurata, which has fallen into desperate straits as a weeks-long siege by pro-Qaddafi forces has stretched thin its stocks of food, water and medical supplies. The city’s port, a vital lifeline that was opened in the initial Western air attacks, was choked off by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces in the days after NATO took over.
The port has since reopened, but the city remains under attack by tanks, artillery and snipers, and rebel leaders are complaining that NATO is failing there in its central objective of protecting civilians.
I know I’m becoming a broken record on this point, but the ability of NATO to protect civilians in Misratah — isolated as it is from other rebel-held cities — is likely to remain limited as long as Gaddafi remains in power. And the longer the fighting drags on, the greater the risk that radical jihadis, so far a relatively marginal force in the Libyan rebellion, will be strengthened as the credibility of more pro-Western rebels is undermined by NATO’s ineffectiveness. And then there’s the resonance that Gaddafi’s survival would have on pro-democracy movements elsewhere in the region, the very real risk that a Gaddafi who survives as an international pariah might return to his old habit of sponsoring terror attacks.
Granted, all of those things — the humanitarian hazard, the risk of Islamist insurgency, the resonance in the region, and the behavior of Gaddafi — might have been as bad or worse if there had been no Western intervention at all. But the Obama administration’s policy has been about as poorly executed as one can imagine.
Meanwhile, senators like John McCain, John Cornyn, and Marco Rubio, who want to clarify US policy and make Gaddafi’s ouster an explicit military objective are being stymied by Harry Reid.