In mid-March, US President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron cited the urgent need to save the opposition in Benghazi from massacre at the hands of Muammar Qaddafi's forces as sufficient cause for a military campaign. They embarked on Odyssey Dawn Saturday, March 19.
Sixteen days later, on Monday, April 4, Dennis Ross, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, delivered the following version to the Anti-Defamation League Conference in Washington:
"As Qaddafi's troops advanced toward the city of Benghazi and he promised 'no mercy' on his own population, we (the US) helped to mobilize a broad international coalition committed to preventing what would surely have been a humanitarian catastrophe – a human slaughter and a moral disaster…"
The difficulty with this narrative is that from Feb. 19, when the Libyan opposition began fighting the government in Tripoli, the Qaddafi regime has not perpetrated any crimes resembling human slaughter or caused a humanitarian catastrophe. This is not because his forces are incapable of such savagery but because the Libyan ruler ordered them specifically to avoid war crimes and crimes against humanity even if this meant incurring battlefield defeats.
Qaddafi carefully avoided war crimes with an eye on his own future
This order is enlightening in three ways, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports:
1. It means that Qaddafi and his sons exercise total control over Libyan armed forces. Put a different way, those forces are organized, disciplined and trained to scrupulously follow orders. To this day, no Western or Arab military or humanitarian observers have come up with evidence or testimony of abuses against the civilian population, even in the fiercely embattled towns of Berga, Misrata, Ras Lanuf and Zawiya.
2. The Libyan ruler is determined not to give his foes any pretext for attacking him.
Realizing from the start that there was no way he could prevent the West mounting an offensive against his regime, he decided to temper the onslaught, limit the damage and make sure it was not mortal by keeping his own campaign within acceptable limits.
3. Qaddafi is convinced that his cautious and measured warfare against the rebels is the key to a diplomatically negotiated ending of the war.
The Libyan ruler is out to prove that there never was any basis for UN Resolution 1793 which authorized military operations for the protection of civilians; nor for using the phrase 'the slaughter in Benghazi' as cause for Western military intervention and a no-fly zone, which never worked anyway.
From a strictly military standpoint, the pro-Qaddafi' forces could have been halted in their advance on Benghazi in the second half of March by a one-time massive bombardment and the downing of one or two Libyan air force planes or helicopters.
Qaddafi's message to Obama: The bargaining begins
Qaddafi and his commanders have been the most attentive and obedient listeners to the military and diplomatic messages sent them by Washington – in contrast to their contempt and defiance for the often conflicting pronouncements from London and Paris.
So it was no wonder that on Wednesday, April 6, when Qaddafi saw the Obama administration had withdrawn from the military campaign and a direct assault on his regime, Libyan national television announced he had sent a letter to President Barack Obama with this key sentence, "Allow me to congratulate the US on dropping out of the Western Crusaders alliance."
This was not just a piece of sarcasm on Qaddafi's part but an indication of his conviction that after America withdrew from the Libyan battlefield and left it to Britain and France, he would be able to deal with the Obama administration and reach an accord in the same way as he came to terms with President George W. Bush eight years ago by dismantling his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs and handing over intelligence on the Pakistani nuclear black market.
To achieve this accord, Qaddafi would be prepared to step down – but not to leave Libya.
Even if Obama refused to answer the letter or even read it, the Libyan ruler considered it was worth his while to clarify his position and intentions on paper.
And indeed, US Secretary Hillary Clinton replied that first he must pull his troops back from the towns they captured from the rebels.
Qaddafi saw this as a "yes, but" response to his message and the start of bargaining for an end to the war.
Obama seen as quitting the turmoil before stability is gained
The Libyan ruler believes he goes into diplomacy with a strong hand.
He claims credit – first for easing Washington out of the military campaign and second, for aggravating the discord between the rebels on the one hand and NATO, France and Britain on the other. The Provisional Council in Benghazi understands that with the Americans out of it, the rebels can forget about toppling him. All in all, if they come out of the conflict with nothing but control of Cyrenaica with London, Paris, Rome and Ankara jockeying for influence there, they will consider themselves defeated.
This would have been reason enough for the Obama administration's decision to turn its back on Libya.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that this conduct has had far-reaching ramifications for the way America is perceived in the Middle East and North Africa four months after the first pro-diplomacy protest movement against an autocratic regime kicked off in Tunisia.
Observers in both regions point out that the Obama administration has shown a tendency to walk out on these movements and leave behind a trail of instability and unresolved crises.
Of course the Obama administration would reply that it is up to the peoples of the affected countries to pull together and establish the democracies they crave with Washington doing everything in its power to help them.
This premise would be challenged in many regional quarters – both within the beleaguered regimes and their opponents. They would be supported in many American circles in the argument that the results of the Obama administration's intervention for promoting the Arab revolt are extreme instability in a number of countries – Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, to name only the currently endangered places, with the popular uprisings and revolts and the unrest in their wake liable to spread to more. Because the duel between Washington and Muammar Qaddafi has been taken to heart in more than one capital and unpredictable conclusions may have been drawn.