The popular uprisings against authoritarian governments that have swept across North Africa and the Middle East found their harshest resistance in Libya where the government of dictator Moammar Gaddafi set out to suppress the uprising with the full might of the country's military. Faced with Ghaddafi's threat of "no mercy" and the probability of a human catastrophe, the Arab League, the U.S. and several European nations sought a UN Security Council Resolution to respond to the crisis. While this is a common response to international crises it is a very slow moving and the involvement of numerous competing interests makes it a highly political process often producing vague or overly generalized results in the attempt to gain approval.
The United Nations Security Council has 15 members. A majority of 9, which must include the 5 Permanent Members (China, Russia, Great Britain, France, United States) either by assent or abstention, is required to pass any resolution. The 10 non-permanent members serve on a rotating basis for 2 year terms. Thus UNSC Resolution 1973 was passed on a vote of 10-0 with 5 abstentions (China, Russia, Brazil, Germany, India) the purpose of which was to authorize UN member states to "take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack" from the forces of Libya's leader, Moammar Ghaddafi.
This initial lack of unanimity in the "world's forum" has unfortunately been repeated as the process to implement a response has unfolded. Leading the way rhetorically have been French President Nickolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Also an early supporter of a UN sanctioned international response was the Arab League. But the language, and thus the intention, of the UN resolution was predictably vague: "all necessary measures" could mean anything but it was followed by language specifically citing authorization for implementing a "no fly zone" which was intended to deny Ghaddfi the ability to use helicopter gunships and strike aircraft against the rebels. To some governments this implied that the "necessary measures" would be limited to combat air patrols by volunteer nations to keep Ghaddafi's aircraft grounded.
The initial response was carried out by France, Britain and the United States which as usual, provided the majority of the military assets. This response was an enormous barrage of ship and submarine launched cruise missiles and bombing attacks whose purpose was to destroy the air defense capabilities of the Libyan military thus making "no fly" patrols by coalition aircraft possible. But this first action revealed the problem of widely disparate interests in the conduct of military actions.
Fearing what might be perceived as an endorsement of yet another major military intervention in an Arab/Muslim nation by Western governments, the Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Moussa, expressed anger at the severe level of the initial air assault and threatened to call another meeting of the League to reconsider its original endorsement.
The apparently rudderless Obama Administration ship of state was beset by similar fears. Not wanting to appear in the forefront of another attack on an Arab/Muslim country, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said publicly and almost apologetically:
"We did not lead this."
A few hours later Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, made the confusion in the administration apparent when he described the U.S. role quite differently:
“We are on the leading edge of a coalition military operation.”
Nonetheless, President Obama continued to make an effort to minimize the U.S. role by constantly saying that after the initial air assault the U.S. would "hand-off" the enforcement of the UN resolution to NATO. Again, this is somewhat misleading. While the operational commander is a Canadian general, the NATO supreme commander is always an American, in this case an American admiral, and the whole effort would be impossible without U.S. intelligence, communications, logistics and air refueling capabilities.
Now ostensibly in NATO hands with respect to mission control, the weaknesses of warfare by committee are becoming apparent even beyond the differences within the Security Council and the Arab League. The French especially, and to a lesser extent the British, interpret the "all necessary measures" language of the resolution to include air attacks on Ghadaffi's ground forces which are currently besieging two rebel held cities with tanks, artillery, and infantry. Some attacks of this nature have been carried out but there is opposition to escalating these tactics among the NATO members themselves.
NATO is made up of 28 nations, most of whom contribute very little in military capability. However, NATO operates by "consensus" which means unanimous assent. Even though only 14 of the member nations are involved in the Libyan operation (most in the naval blockade off Libya's coast), and only 6 of these are involved in the "no fly" operation, and within these 6, most flights are being carried out by the French and the British, the attacks on Libyan forces have divided the alliance. Italy's Foreign Minister has quite bluntly stated that Italy will" "refuse to fire over Libya" and their is little enthusiasm among the remaining 11 participants to intensify the intervention.
The overly generalized and thus vague Security Council resolution, the tactically narrow interpretation of it by the Arab League, the lack of a defined mission and dissent within NATO, and a lack of leadership by the United States, have created a conflict without a strategy. President Obama has repeatedly said that the purpose of the limited U.S. participation, and thus by implication, that of the entire operation, is not "regime change". This is another apparent effort to avoid being seen in the Muslim world as a reincarnation of the Bush Administration and is also a concession to the limited objective voices on the Security Council and in NATO . But the goal of the armed insurgents is very much to remove Ghaddafi, so any support by outside powers is contributing to that goal. In a ridiculous effort to have it both ways, Obama has said that the political, if not the military goal is that "Ghaddafi must go."
Currently the rebels are on the defensive. They are untrained, ill-equipped and poorly led. Without a military effort on the part of NATO to defeat Ghaddafi’s superior forces or kill Ghaddafi himself, the two most likely outcomes are the defeat of the insurgency or a long term stand-off with the rebels in control of a few population centers on the eastern Mediterranean coast. This would require a long term presence by NATO to prevent their defeat, which is politically and economically unsustainable, given the general lack of popular support for the operation in U.S. and other NATO countries. This means that Obama’s political goal of a Ghaddafi free Libya depends on Ghaddafi leaving voluntarily. There is no hint that he is inclined to do so and on the contrary he remains publicly defiant and appears to have significant domestic support. Thus the attempt to “organize the international political community” to carry out a mission with ill defined military and contradictory political goals has created another foreign policy swamp for the U.S.
NATO cannot operate without major U.S. participation. The European members have even depleted their inventories of bombs in less than a month long campaign. UN Resolution 1973 allows individual nations to act in accordance with its provisions. Thus the U.S., Britain and France may have to make the tough decision to form a “coalition of the willing” outside of the bogged down NATO framework and make one of three choices:
1. supply the rebels with the weaponry and supplies to give them a chance against Ghaddafi’s army:
2. remove Ghaddafi with a vigorous air strategy and special operations
3. stand down and let the struggle play out on its own.
Unlike other populist uprisings in the region, the Libyan situation is essentially a civil war. Intervening in such events is highly risky and requires a level of unanimity among the regional and international participants, a clear strategy and a definition of success that is not present in Libya.