If Libya threatens to become a no-win for NATO, for China and Russia it’s a win-win
US Admiral Samuel Locklear, NATO’s joint operations chief in Naples, is not a man who minces his words when defining his mission in Libya.
It is a definition that confirms China and Russia’s worst fears and has strengthened their determination to thwart any US or European attempt to embark on a repeat performance in Syria or anywhere else in the Middle East and North Africa.
It also raises questions about the effectiveness of military force and whether foreign intervention is the right response to brutal crackdowns by autocratic leaders on demonstrators demanding greater political reform and economic opportunity and it calls into question the future of NATO itself.
Admiral Locklear’s mission, he says unambiguously, is to kill Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi. He also believes that NATO will have to put troops on the ground in Libya to restore stability once his goal has been achieved.
The admiral defined his mission in a recent conversation with US House Armed Services Committee member Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, who in turn disclosed the commander’s thinking to Foreign Policy’s The Cable. Mr. Turner was one of hundreds of US lawmakers who voted Friday against authorizing the US role in Libya.
Admiral Locklear’s straight talk contradicts not only the Obama administration’s denial that NATO’s mission is regime change, but also confirms what Russia and China have been asserting in recent months: the North Atlantic alliance is violating the United Nations Security Council resolution under which it operates in Libya.
The resolution adopted three months ago endorses the imposition of a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians against attacks from forces loyal to Mr. Qaddafi and explicitly bans the use of ground forces.
As far as Admiral Locklear is concerned, that UN mandate authorizes the killing of Mr. Qaddafi.
“The UN authorization had three components: blockade, no fly zone, and civil protection. And Admiral Locklear explained that the scope of civil protection was being interpreted to permit the removal of the chain of command of Qaddafi’s military, which includes Qaddafi,” The Cable said. “He said that currently is the mission as NATO has defined.”
To prevent a repeat of Libya in Syria, China and Russia have blocked Western efforts to get the Security Council to condemn Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters. The two countries fear that the resolution would be a first step towards efforts to topple Mr. Assad.
Equally, importantly Libya has become yet another example of how difficult it is to kill a leader. It took the United States a decade to hunt down Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and it succeeded only once it was able to penetrate his most inner defense line. Repeated NATO bombings of Mr. Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli have yet to do the job and so far there is no evidence despite multiple defections that the alliance has been able to plug into Mr. Qaddafi’s inner circle.
NATO’s failure to kill Mr. Qaddafi so far, irrespective of whether it is legal under the Security Council resolution, coupled with its support for the anti-Qaddafi rebels, moreover provides no incentive for the Libyan leader to halt attacks on his opponents or on civilians in rebel-held areas.
The UN resolution was adopted to thwart an imminent attack by Qaddafi forces on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya. The international community feared that the assault would have resulted in a massacre.
The question is whether three months into implementation of the resolution and continued fighting less people have lost their lives than would have been killed in a Qaddafi attack on Benghazi.
In effect, the debate over Libya is back to square one and in the words of Steven Metz writing in The New Republic, could be NATO’s swan song. In fact, failure in Libya coupled with the problem of Afghanistan and the unwieldy experience in former Yugoslavia—the first conflict in which the military pact tried to redefine itself in a post-Cold War world—threatens to be another nail in NATO’s coffin.
The facts on the ground appear to confirm Mr. Metz’s pessimism. Allied hopes that rebel forces would quickly overrun Mr. Qaddafi’s forces or that someone in the Libyan leader’s closest circle would take him out or that he would run out of funds and/or supplies have so far proven wishful thinking.
Under the circumstances, the status quo works in Colonel Qaddafi’s favor despite assertions by NATO leaders that his end is near. The longer he hangs on, the more difficult it is for the allies who are already internally divided with Italy calling for an end to hostilities and the US Congress refusing to authorize them.
In doing so, Mr. Qaddafi is laying the groundwork for long-term instability in Libya whichever way the battle goes and whether or not he survives.
Moreover, the more the rebels become dependent on foreign military assistance, the bigger the risk that their image will be tarnished if they succeed by the specter of coming to power on the back of US and West European military hardware. That specter would only be reinforced if Admiral Locklear’s prediction is correct that NATO forces will have to be put on the ground once the Libyan leader is gone.
Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate the risk. The Taliban’s insurgency in Afghanistan has been fuelled by perceptions that President Hamid Karzai is little more than the Afghan face of a foreign occupation force. Successive elected Iraqi governments have yet to shed the image of association with the coalition forces despite repeated elections that have been judged free and fair.
All of this plays into China and Russia’s hands despite their repeated condemnations of NATO policy. Both nations have kept their lines open to Mr. Qaddafi as well as to the rebels ensuring that they are on the right side of the fence irrespective of who emerges victorious. If Libya potentially could become a lose-lose situation for NATO, for China and Russia it is so far a win-win.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org)