Republicans Skeptical of Libyan Involvement

American conservatives are divided on the merits of their country’s military involvement in Libya. Whereas foreign policy hawks like Senator John McCain urged support for Libya’s anti-government forces from the start, many of the likely Republican presidential contenders were skeptical of the president’s war policy on Monday night.

During a primary debate in the northeastern state of New Hampshire, several of the Republican presidential hopefuls criticized Barack Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya. Others lambasted him for not assuming a leadership role.

Former Governors Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, both of whom are considered moderates, previously complained about how the president handled the military campaign. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich initially called on Obama to impose a no-fly zone only to criticize him later for doing exactly that. During the New Hampshire debate, he warned that, “We have no idea what percent of the Libyan rebels are in fact Al Qaeda.”

Although the Arab and Western nations enforcing the no-fly zone do not know very well just who the rebels are, according to Senator McCain, who visited the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi in April, where the rebels established their interim government, terrorists have not been directing the uprising. If there were a stalemate though, he warned, “it’s very possible that Al Qaeda could come in and take advantage of” the situation.

Both McCain and Republican senator Lindsey Graham urged greater pressure on Tripoli where Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi continues to defy NATO airpower and sanctions. “The people around Gaddafi need to wake up every day wondering, will this be my last?” Graham said two months ago.

According to the South Carolina legislator, American national-security interest could be harmed if Gaddafi survives. Others beg to differ. Most foreign policy analysts agree that regime change in Libya is not in the vital interest of the United States. “It is more in the vital interest of Europeans,” former national security advisor General James Jones said in April, “when you consider the effects of massive immigration, the effects of terror, the oil market.”

Most Americans agree. A Rasmussen poll released this week found just 26 percent of likely voters supporting continued military action in Libya. 42 percent would like the United States to stop participating in the intervention altogether. Among Republicans, opposition is even more pronounced. Half of likely Republican voters want their country out.

Despots Who Fight to the Bitter End

Between Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a whole range of dictators seems bent on fighting to the bitter end. Wikistrat‘s latest CoreGap Weekly Bulletin wonders what to do with such hardheaded despots.

In the face of unprecedented civil unrest, longtime rulers across the Middle East had to chose either to resign or sit it out in the past two months. In Egypt and Tunisia, veteran presidents were ousted after weeks of demonstrations. Hosni Mubarak wouldn’t leave until the military made clear that he had no choice. In the Ivory Coast, it took French peacekeepers to make Laurent Gbagbo accept electoral defeat.

At the same time, the ruling families in Bahrain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia held on to power despite varying degrees of violence. In Syria, the regime has taken to crushing an anti-government revolt with brutal force. In Libya, Colonel Gaddafi perseveres under heavy NATO bombardment.

What do to about these people? Foreign policy realists may be willing to cut a deal with them, notes Wikistrat, so long as their quick departure is achieved and further bloodshed averted. Idealists tend to be uncompromising however, demanding trials and justice that could deter fellow dictators from stepping down.

The more zero-sum the immediate outcome of regime change, the more likely loyalists fight on indefinitely. Before NATO bombs started dropping, Western leaders spoke openly of war crime trials for Gaddafi. To date, no one has formally taken that threat off the table […]

As Mubarak and his sons face criminal charges that could conceivably result in their execution, Gaddafi and his offspring would certainly prefer protracted civil war over a similar fate.

Even if they are caught and dragged before a tribunal, the sentencing of former dictators can incite a whole new wave of violence, certainly in tribal and divided societies as Libya’s — and the Ivory Coast’s. If Gbagbo is tried at the hands of his northern and Muslim successor, we should not be surprised, according to Wikistrat, to see the more urbanized and Christian south rise up again.

Striking a deal for immunity and sanctuary overseas doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of bitter despots either. Deposed leaders are quite capable of rallying loyalists from abroad. “So as Libya heads toward a military stalemate, one has to wonder if Muammar Gaddafi’s departure — absent the willing surrender of his forces, would be all that conclusive.”

Wikistrat does not argue for what it terms “drawn out, Brezhnev like collapse of the ancien régime, where one doddering old fool is replaced like another,” but does remind us that not every country can handle the truth — much less a “truth commission.”

The Drone Résumé Expands

In what has become a prolonged, seesaw slug between Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libyan army units and the rebels (now formally known as the Transitional National Council), the United States have been observing the conflict lately from the outside looking in. The first week was all about American planes and warships directing Tomahawk cruise missiles onto precise Libyan government facilities, including a strike that was aimed directly at Gaddafi’s military compound in Tripoli. But with violence now escalating and the conflict quickly looking more and more like a civil war, the Obama Administration has wised up and taken a back seat.

NATO, specifically the Belgians, British, Canadians and the French, have been under control of the allied assault since Washington diverted authority last month. For better or for worse, the Europeans are now the predominate executors of the no-fly-zone mandate, hitting Gaddafi loyalists massing near opposition controlled cities from thousands of miles in the air. Yet even with the operation still up and running, some of the bravado that was exhibited by the coalition during the opening phase of the campaign has been lost by a combination of frustration and confusion.

Foremost among that frustration are the British and the French, who have both been disappointed that other partners in the NATO coalition have not lived up to their end of the burden. The United Nations Security Council, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference may have all signed on to the humanitarian intervention but only a few are actually contributing fighters in the skies. Fewer still are patrolling Libya’s airspace in order to protect civilians who have been liberated from Gaddafi’s army. The only Arab states that are actively participating are Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Of those three, only Qatar is flying missions.

Therefore, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the United States reentered the fight and assumed a more proactive role. The Europeans and NATO both asked for American assistance during bombing runs: only the United States have the equipment and fighter jets that can indefinitely hit targets without inflicting substantial civilian casualties. The president heard their calls and deployed armed Predator drones over Libya in order to tilt the military balance in favor of the rebels.

For an administration that was hesitant to intervene in the first place, this decision is right in line with America’s minimalist objectives in Libya — avoid the deployment of ground troops by protecting civilians from the air. At the same time, dispatching drones to Libya demonstrates to the Europeans that the United States have not gotten soft as the conflict has gotten messier. (Some respected journalists have argued that drones may just make the war worse.)

Will drone strikes help the coalition effort in any substantial way? If the objective is to parse out Gaddafi fighters from the general civilian population, the answer is yes. As illustrated in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, drone technology is quite reliable and their propensity for singling out people is virtually assured. Gaddafi loyalists have adapted to NATO airstrikes by hiding in residential areas and blending in with civilians, which inevitably makes it more difficult to neutralize them without killing innocents at the same time. Drones, which can hover above a target for up to twelve straight hours, mitigate the chances of collateral damage quite dramatically.

The assassination of Muammar Gaddafi himself may also be a motive for sending drone aircraft into the intervention. Hundreds of Al Qaeda commanders have been killed by drones over the last seven years in the Pakistani tribal regions and a top terrorist leader in Yemen was wiped out in the same fashion a year after the 9/11 attacks. Pilotless aircraft are clearly the weapon of choice in American counterterrorism assignments around the world.

Now, we can file “protecting Libyan civilians” as a new bullet point in the drone resume.

Top US Senators Urge Heavier Involvement in Libya

Senator John McCain on Sunday urged American leadership in Libya and a deeper commitment to support the country’s anti-government forces. He recommended that Washington recognize the rebels’ interim council as the sole and legitimate representative of the Libyan people and the efficient use of airpower to “bring Gaddafi to his knees.”

Even as unmanned drone aircraft were deployed by the United States to precision target loyalist forces, it was clear to McCain that his country had to “play a greater role on the airpower side. Our NATO allies neither have the assets nor, frankly, the will,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press before pointing out that only six European nations were actively involved.

The former Republican presidential contender and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee visited the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya on Friday where he called for an end to Muammar Gaddafi’s forty year rule and the beginning of “a peaceful and inclusive transition to democracy that will benefit all Libyans.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is also a member of the Armed Services Committee, urged greater pressure on Tripoli. “The people around Gaddafi need to wake up every day wondering, will this be my last?” he said on CNN’s State of the Union. The rebels don’t have the momentum necessary to topple the regime, he admitted. “The military commanders in Tripoli supporting Gaddafi should be pounded.”

Graham didn’t worry about an international backlash if the NATO targeted Gaddafi specifically. “I don’t think there are many people in the world that would be very upset if Gaddafi is taken out of Libya,” he said. “You can’t let the Russians and the Chinese veto the freedom agenda.”

China and Russia both wield veto power on the United Nations Security Council and both abstained from voting on the resolution that authorized military intervention in Libya to protect its civilian population against the regime.

McCain urged caution lest airstrikes against Tripoli inflict civilian casualties but he agreed that the coalition “ought to make Gaddafi aware that his very life is in danger.”

The Arizona senator proposed to arm Libya’s rebels as early as February of this year. He told ABC’s This Week in March that the United States could not “risk allowing Gaddafi to massacre people from the air, both by helicopter and fixed-wing [aircraft].” The enforcement of a no-fly zone stopped attacks from the air against protesters but could not prevent a stalemate from emerging with neither rebels nor loyalists able to decide the battle in their favor.

Several European countries have called upon NATO to intensify airstrikes against Gaddafi’s regime and overtly assist the rebels in the civil war. The Obama Administration has been reluctant to commit however as it is waging two wars in the Middle East already.

While both the administration and McCain have ruled out putting American troops on the ground, the latter said on Friday that Western powers needed to do more to “facilitate” the delivery of weapons and training of the rebels.

Britain, France and Italy earlier announced plans to send military advisors to rebel held territory while Qatar has reportedly supplied the anti-government forces with arms.

Is the Arab Spring a Distraction for America?

Is America’s involvement in Libya a distraction from its core interests in the Middle East? According to Kathleen T. McFarland, it is. “We’re now in the middle of somebody else’s civil war.”

On the Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense argued that the United States better consider their own strategic interests in the region. “It’s not Libya,” she said. “It’s not any of these places.”

America’s foremost interest in the Middle East is to ensure a safe and steady flow of oil from Saudi Arabia and its tiny Gulf neighbors, particularly through the Strait of Hormuz and the Suez Canal.

40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil shipments passes through the Strait of Hormuz every day yet Iran has warned repeatedly that it might seal off the waterway if it feels threatened from the West.

In February of this year, over Israeli objections, Iranian warships for the first time in thirty years passed through the Suez Canal — mere days after longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had been forced to resign in the face of mass anti-government protests.

McFarland predicted that Iran would keep up the pressure and continue to challenge American hegemony by exploiting the Arab unrest. “If we’re already diverted everywhere else, we’re not going to be prepared for it,” she said.

Iran is encircling Israel and undermining Saudi influence, in part by fueling the protests in Bahrain where the Shiite majority is demanding political reform from a Sunni ruling class. Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain last month but the demonstrations continue.

Although Libya may be a distraction for the United States, McFarland criticized their limited involvement in the war. “We have a limited goal. We have limited particiaption, limited time. You know what happens when you do that? You have limited success.” She urged policymakers to define the mission in Libya. If it is regime change, the coalition should do more.

The Obama Administration announced on the same day that it would deploy unmanned drones over Libya to aid in the enforcement of the no-fly zone but American aircraft were no longer attacking armored formations loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

NATO last week requested additional precision fighter jets to minimize civilian casualties while Britain and France have urged their allies to intensify their commitment to the operation. “There is always more to do,” according to British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Libya “Not a Vital Interest” of the United States

The international military intervention in Libya is not in the vital interest of the United States, according to former national security advisor James L. Jones, “but we are part of an alliance,” he said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.

“It is more in the vital interest of Europeans,” the retired Marine Corps general explained, “when you consider the effects of massive immigration, the effects of terror, the oil market.”

On the same program last week, defense secretary Robert Gates agreed that the unrest in Libya posed no actual or imminent threat to the United States.

The North African country has been engulfed in turmoil since its longtime ruler, Muammar al-Gaddafi deployed heavy force against anti-government demonstrations that were inspired by similar revolts in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. The violent crackdown sparked a civil war that left the government in control of the western part of Libya while rebels, now protected from airstrikes by a UN mandated no-fly zone, control the east.

America’s involvement in the enforcement of the no-fly zone, which was necessarily to disable Gaddafi’s air defenses within a matter of days, has been controversial with members of both major political parties. Opposition Republicans in particular worry about the lack of a clear exit strategy which they say could involve the United States in another long and costly war in the Arab world.

The administration and military officials have insisted that America’s role in the intervention would be limited however. Last week, NATO assumed control of the operation. Western European and Qatari aircraft are supposed to patrol the Libyan skies while the United States take on a supportive role.

On CNN’s State of the Union, General Jones admitted that the goal of the intervention wasn’t clear. “We know that the end stage is to have regime change in Libya,” he said but that was not the purpose of the military mission.

Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski nevertheless said that the West had to make sure that Gaddafi wouldn’t stick around. “The longer this thing lasts the more likely he is to end up entrenched in at least half of Libya,” he told Fareed Zakaria on GPS.

The no-fly zone alone may not be enough to give the rebels the edge they need to defeat Gaddafi’s army and mercenaries. Arming them has been suggested and it was reported last month that the Obama Administration had asked Saudi Arabia if it could supply the anti-government forces with weapons.

“Quietly, we can certainly do a lot,” said Brzezinski. But Jones was skeptical, noting that the West wasn’t sure just who the rebels were. Once it could identify them, foreign powers could “decide whether that’s meritorious or not in terms of training, organizing, equipping,” he said.

While the United Nations resolution authorizing military action in Libya explicitly ruled out an “occupation” and the president has promised that there will be no American “boots on the ground,” American intelligence operatives have been in Libya, presumably in contact with the opposition.

British prime minister David Cameron said last week that in his government’s view, the resolution might not prohibit “assistance to those protecting civilians in certain circumstances.” Foreign Secretary William Hague added that that could include the arming of rebel forces.

Russia’s Conflicts in Libya

Earlier this month, the Russian government surprised many observers by going along with UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized international enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya. Russia was initially expected to veto the resolution. Instead, Russia chose to abstain in order to ensure the protection of civilians, while its ambassador to the United Nations made statements expressing concern about how the resolution would be implemented.

In recent years, Russia has had close trade relations with the Libyan government. In particular it has signed billions of dollars worth of arms contracts with the regime of Muammar Gaddhafi. This is the context that partially explains the removal of Vladimir Chamov, Russia’s ambassador to Libya, after he sent a telegram to Moscow arguing that allowing the UN resolution to pass would represent a betrayal of Russia’s state interests. Chamov has since returned to Moscow where he has publicly spoken out against the implementation of the no-fly zone.

In the last week, Russia’s attitude toward the no-fly zone has unexpectedly become a factor in Russian domestic politics. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s statement on March 21 criticized the UN resolution for getting involved in an internal conflict. In the most controversial part of his remarks, Putin argued that the resolution allowed international forces to take virtually any measures against a sovereign state, and in this he said it resembled medieval calls to crusades, “when someone called on others to go to a certain place and liberate it.”

The response from President Dmitri Medvedev was almost immediate. He argued that Russia’s abstention on the resolution vote was the proper position. Furthermore, he dressed down Putin (though not by name) by saying:

Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as ‘crusades’ and so on. It is unacceptable. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse than what is going on now. Everyone should remember that.

And he removed Chamov from his position, essentially for public insubordination. Putin came out the next day with a statement indicating that the president is responsible for foreign policy in Russia and that he backed his president’s policies. A spokesman indicated that Putin’s previous statement was simply an indication of his own personal views rather than an official policy statement.

It may be that this conflict was yet another example of the good cop-bad cop show that the Russian leadership tandem have been putting on for the last three years. Or it may be that this is the first serious indication that Medvedev and Putin are engaged in a serious behind the scenes tussle for the right to run for president in 2012. I am still slightly on the side of the former, though a second public disagreement of this level of seriousness would be enough to convince me that this is a genuine conflict.

Rather than focus on the domestic conflict, I want to examine why Russian politicians see this conflict the way they do. I would argue that Russian leaders’ inconsistent position on Libya is essentially a case of wanting to have their cake and eat it too.

I believe that Russian leaders decided not to veto Resolution 1973 for two reasons. First, they did not want to alienate Western leaders who were pushing for the intervention. While the rapprochement with the United States is important to them and certainly played a role here, we should also remember the importance of Russian political and economic ties with European states and especially France and Italy, both of whom were strongly in favor of a no-fly zone because of the potential for a humanitarian and refugee disaster in the event of an attack by Gaddhafi’s forces on Benghazi. Second, Russian leaders did not want to be blamed for blocking the intervention if the result was a large-scale massacre of civilians.

On the other hand, Russian leaders also did not want to create a new norm of international intervention in internal conflicts, particularly when these conflicts were the result of a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler. They genuinely dislike what they see as a Western predilection for imposing their values and forms of government on other parts of the world. They remember the color revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia, in which friendly regimes were replaced by ones that were to a greater or lesser extent anti-Russian.

Furthermore, they believe that these popular protest movements were organized and funded by Western governments, particularly the United States. This creates a certain amount of suspicion of similar protests leading to the removal of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, even when the deposed rulers do not have particularly close ties to Russia.

So Russian leaders are understandably nervous about the coalition’s rather expansive interpretation of Resolution 1973. They were willing to allow for the establishment of a no-fly zone in order to avert a likely massacre of civilians and to help their European partners avoid a flood of refugees on their soil. They are much less willing to see NATO forces provide military assistance to a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler that it has traditionally supported.

I suspect that Russian leaders will increasingly begin to speak out against the military campaign if this conflict drags on. They will be especially concerned if it becomes increasingly clear that NATO airstrikes are targeting Gaddhafi’s ground forces rather than limiting themselves to preventing Libyan air forces from targeting civilian areas.

Britain Has Multiple Objectives in Libya

On March 19, 2011, the British military began attacking Libyan government targets under the auspices of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. As a leading advocate of the no-fly zone, Britain’s anti-Gaddafi stance became apparent quite early on when leading members of the cabinet publicly condemned the actions of the Libyan regime.

Britain is contributing various airborne assets from the 1970s vintage Tornado and handing a debut to the “state of the art” Typhoon as well as surveillance, transport and tanker aircraft. Read more “Britain Has Multiple Objectives in Libya”

Who Cares About American Leadership?

If the Libyan intervention was a test of America’s renewed commitment to multilateralism in the age of Obama, it succeeded admirably.

While the intervention itself was shouldered by a “coalition of the willing,” it was endorsed by virtually the entire international community. Indeed, the United States seemed reluctant to spring into action until every interested partner would sanction it, including the Arab League, the European Union and, notably, the United Nations.

There was no “you’re either with us or against us” this time. Instead, America left the initiative to the heart of “Old Europe.” Nicolas Sarkozy’s airplanes were bombing Libyan armor before the allies could even convene in Paris to discuss their plans. Read more “Who Cares About American Leadership?”

Many Uncertainties About Libyan Intervention

There is hardly an hour that goes by without a new development in the Libyan standoff. Newspapers, television shows and world governments have been boxed into an extremely tough position. The Obama Administration has been scrambling to forge a comprehensive policy to an otherwise evolving situation. Some people still aren’t exactly sure how the Libyan government will respond in the coming days. Every contingent is still open and military force by the international community has now become the official policy of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The Libya story is constantly changing, so it’s obviously difficult to track down exactly where we are at this moment, let alone what action Muammar al-Gaddafi will take to either prolong or end the stalemate in his country. Nevertheless, something significant has indeed happened. With a vote of ten to zero, the United Nations Security Council authorized the use of military force against Gaddafi’s regime in order to protect Libyan civilians. French warplanes and American cruise missiles fired the first shots, taking out some of Libya’s air defense systems along the Mediterranean coast this weekend.

With the United States voting in favor of the resolution, Washington once again committed itself to an intervention in the Muslim world — all at a time when American military resources are stretched thin and billions of dollars continue to be spent in Afghanistan and Iraq. So with the United States, Europe and the Arab states now intervening, here are some questions that should be considered as the military campaign grinds on.

Who will lead the operation? The Security Council resolution was passed by a number of countries, including Bosnia, France, Lebanon, Nigeria, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have pledged to contribute fighter planes and/or other equipment to the effort. But who will actually fly the planes and bomb Gaddafi’s defenses?

A American-led operation would not sit well with Arabs, most of whom are still scarred by Washington’s stance vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iraq. Europe may be well suited to enforce the no-fly zone: France, Britain and Italy have far more to lose in Libya than the United States ever will.

What happens if Gaddafi capitulates? If he blinks and backs down, will the United Nations decide to scrap the no-fly zone? Ironically, this question seems to have already been answered, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not taking Gaddafi’s ceasefire announcement seriously. Yet a ceasefire would indicate that the core component of the UN resolution — the protection of civilians — has been met (at least temporarily). This appears to suggest that the United States and its allies may go a step further, perhaps by arming the opposition or bombing Gaddafi’s compounds.

Who are we dealing with? The Libyan opposition is a loose collection of untrained fighters from traditional anti-Gaddafi strongholds. There is no coherent or organized leadership passing down orders, nor is there a clear picture about what the opposition wants — besides the removal of their dictator. With the UN resolution now in affect, the international community has publicly endorsed the rebel side. Unfortunately, we have endorsed a bunch of people who may hold different interests for Libya if and when Gaddafi leaves or falls from power.

Will boots on the ground be necessary? We have to ask ourselves what the next step will be if the no-fly zone and bombing raids fail to persuade Gaddafi to five up fighting. As his history suggests, there is always the possibility that he and his loyalists will dig in and consolidate their authority through unconventional means.

One scenario is the movement of heavy weaponry and anti-aircraft guns into populated civilian areas, ensuring that any foreign strike will kill innocents in the process. It’s a terrible violation of the Geneva Convention, yet Gaddafi has demonstrated that he will pull out all the stops in order to survive. What happens then? Will the United States, Europe and the Arab world decide to increase the scope of their operation?

Is Obama’s team on the same page? There is cause for concern that the administration may not be unified on the president’s decision to use force. The National Security Council was divided during the entire deliberation process with Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power and Ambassador Susan Rice arguing for the intervention and defense secretary Robert Gates, Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon opposing involvement. Gates and Biden, two of the most powerful people in the administration, found themselves on the losing side but must now set aside their disagreements and work to support the president’s policy.