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The Libya mission is turning into an embarrassing mess

NATO is in disarray, Britain and France lack the resources on their own, America is retreating, and we don't know who the rebels are. Welcome to our strategy in Libya

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Benghazi: What happens if this city falls?
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Emanuele Ottolenghi
On 16 April 2011 07:57

We do not know yet whether supporting the Benghazi based rebels was wise. But there is no sensible middle ground between doing nothing and using overwhelming force to remove a murderous regime from power.

The problem with the present mission is that Western leaders made choosing the middle ground a matter of policy. That irresponsible decision has led to the costly patrol of what increasingly looks like a stalemate.

Four weeks have gone by since the first salvo of strikes hit the Libyan regime and its forces. Yet, when all is said and done, troops loyal to Moammar Gaddafi have turned the tables on the rebels and re-conquered most of the territory lost in the first few days after coalition forces intervened.

Now, with the U.S. in retreat from the mission and its forces relegated to a supporting role, NATO simply cannot muster the means, let alone the political will, to do what is necessary to bring about an end to this war.

How did we get here?

The first mistake was made when the mission was defined as a moral imperative. If this mission is defined by the compelling desire to protect civilians and shield them from brutality, why then was this made subordinate to the approval and endorsement of the Arab League and the UN – not exactly the greatest repositories of universal morality.

The attendant delay in getting these doubtful institutions on side cost allied forces almost a month from the time the crisis in Libya began. Intervention came late in the game.

The second mistake, which came prior to the no-fly zone, was to push for a UN resolution that called, among other things, for Gaddafi to be tried in The Hague at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

If anyone hoped for a quick fix where international isolation, sanctions and allied strikes would persuade Gaddafi to seek a safe passage into exile, the ICC threat has put that notion to rest. By telling Gaddafi in advance that he stood no chance even if he followed in the footsteps of his Tunisian counterpart, the international community, in effect, encouraged Gaddafi to hunker down and fight to the death.

The third mistake was to begin a war without the resources to win it. Within hours of the launch of operation Odyssey Dawn, it became clear that the intrepid spirits of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron had been dragged into a war they could not fight on their own, without assurances that additional forces would be pledged by others to ensure success.

America participated in the early stages of the attack but its decision to scale down its contribution has had a damaging effect. Meanwhile, other nations agreed to participate only on condition that command could be passed on to NATO, giving Turkey, a country acting every day less like a member of NATO and more like an adversary, an effective veto on the scope and extent of the operations.

Too bad, but France and Great Britain alone could not impose a no-fly zone effectively, and their allies were not prepared to commit forces to extend the mandate of the mission to regime change.

The divisiveness that has emerged from the Libya mission bodes ill for the future. NATO has been pushed into a mission that is destined to continue for weeks, possibly months.

The Berlin NATO conference that gathered this week to address the Libya crisis only served to underline the conundrum of a war begun without clear ends and conducted without the means to accomplish a decisive result.

This takes us back to the beginning – who are the rebels?

Nobody seems to know or care, and that, perhaps, is the biggest mistake of all. If it turns out that Gaddafi’s enemies are even worse than he is, hindsight may yet teach us that it would have been wiser to stay out of Libya’s civil war altogether.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Read more on: Emanuele Ottolenghi, Libya, NATO, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy
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