The US Opts out of the Libyan Mess for Now, Leaves it to the Europeans
This week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly found some answers to the key question posed in its last issue about the Arab uprisings – "Powered by Television – and Who Else?" – thanks to the US administration's occasional predilection to lift the veil of secrecy from its real doings. This time, the pages of the Washington Post of March 6 revealed the following facts:
1. In August 2010, Obama issued Presidential Study Directive 11 asking agencies to prepare for changes in the Arab world;
2. The president asked his advisers to "manage these risks by demonstrating to the people of the Middle East and North Africa the gradual but real prospect of greater political openness and improved governance";
3. Six months later, street demonstrations were toppling autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, who looked in vain for support from Washington. Obama didn't come to the autocrats' rescue because he believed the transformations were positive developments.
End of quote.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports, notwithstanding President Barack Obama and his advisers' foresight and advance preparations, the Great Arab Revolt of 2011 is stuck in the sands of Libya, against all predictions, after proceeding according to plan in Tunisia and Egypt. Indeed, according to one report (Simon Tisdall in the Guardian March 6, 2011), some Arab rulers and Middle East experts were suggesting this week that Qaddafi's survival may mark the beginning of the end of the Arab world revolt.
This week, therefore, President Barack Obama decided to cut his losses and let the Europeans find solutions to the Libyan impasse through NATO and the European Union.
While laying himself open to charges of weakness and inconstancy in the face of a brutal, despotic ruler, the US president has opted for the sidelines at this time, while reserving the ability to spring back into frontline action if indicated.
Obama's five options for saving Libya on hold
His decision was no doubt motivated by a careful examination of the consequences in Libya of the master plan he laid out last August for replacing certain autocratic Arab regimes with democratic rule. He saw Col. Muammar Qaddafi stabilizing his lines of defense around the oil town of Ras Lanuf and his own home town of Sirte (at Wadi al Ahmar) in a striking display of military superiority over his opponents
Until the middle of this week, Obama had lined up five military options for solving the Libyan standoff. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that none of them was simple or even practical but may yet be revived.
First, to stand aside and let Qaddafi get away with a victory.
The loss to the Obama administration's program would be heavy. Once the Libyan dictator recaptured Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, and destroyed the rebel center situated there, he would not only have put a spoke in the wheel of the Great Arab Revolt, he will have terminated it.
Second, to put American boots on the ground, or rather take on Qaddafi's army in lieu of the rebels. In military terms, this could land the US in a scenario perceived in the Pentagon and US high command as a nightmare. With the bulk of its strength at war in Afghanistan and still stuck in Iraq, the US lacks even the limited number of Special Forces manpower for the type of combat necessary in the Libyan battlefield. At the moment, the US military is transforming itself away from reliance on heavy forces into an army better suited to low intensity conflict and helping partner nations.
By no means can the Libyan rebels be counted "a partner nation." (A separate article deals with the radicalization of the Arab Revolt.) The bands of ragtag rebel irregulars make even the Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr's wild-eyed Medhi Army militia look like a spit-and-polish army.
US troops could be jammed between pro-Qaddafi and anti-Qaddafi guns
In no time, moreover, US troops might themselves facing two ways between the guns of Qaddafi and those of the bands of anti-Qaddafi irregulars, whose makeup has never been fully assessed by US intelligence.
Third, Washington could directly or through a third party, such as Egypt or one of the Europeans, furnish the rebels with the arms they need to cut down Qaddafi's air force – such as effective anti-air missiles – except that, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources, the White House has been warned that those weapons may soon find their way into the hands of Al Qaeda in North Africa – AQIM – or other radicals who may be fighting in rebel ranks.
Fourth, Enforcement of a US-NATO no fly zone in part, or all, of Libyan air space. Given the size of Libya – four times the area of Iraq and sparsely populated – this operation would require hundreds of American warplanes, scores of spy planes and at least two aircraft carriers.
Even that strength could not be sure can keep Libyan skies clear. It would be ineffective against Qaddafi's low-flying airplanes and helicopters which are mostly responsible for crippling opposition operations rather than fighter jets, and his powerful air force and air defenses would jeopardize US and allied aircraft, unless suppressed in advance in a major war operation.
(The head of the U.S. Marine Corps, Commandant Gen. James F. Amos, told US lawmakers Tuesday, March 8, that a no-fly zone would do little to thwart Libya's helicopters which he called "their greatest threat."
A no-fly zone would typically be enforced by fighter jets whose speed and altitude make it difficult to target helicopters, which move low and slow, he explained.)
Qaddafi has meanwhile announced that Libyans would fight a no-fly zone if it were imposed by Western nations, saying it would show their real intention is to seize the country's oil.
The UN no-fly zone option won't fly
While those options were under discussion in Washington, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and counter-terror sources report from Tripoli that none of them had Qaddafi running scared, or put him off his latest big offensive, launched Tuesday, to break the back of the opposition both to the east and the west of Tripoli and open the way to the eastern region of rebel-held Cyranaica.
He was certainly not deterred by a statement from the White House Tuesday night that President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron had agreed in a phone call that the "common objective in Libya" must be an end to violence and the departure of Muammar Gaddafi from power.
"The president and the prime minister agreed to press forward with planning, including at NATO, on the full spectrum of possible responses, including surveillance, humanitarian assistance, enforcement of the arms embargo, and a no fly zone," the White House said.
Britain and France are seeking a UN resolution to authorize such a zone, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said later must be UN-led. She spoke after Moscow indicated that the Russian veto would likely block any foreign intervention in Libya.
The statements coming from the Obama administration Tuesday, as the military tide turned sharply in favor of Qaddafi's forces, were therefore seen more as dilatory tactics than reflecting a resolve for immediate intervention.
Foreign military intervention mired in a partitioned Libya
Fifth. This increasingly remote option would entail the deployment of US forces in rebel-held Cyrenaica, including Benghazi and Misrata, to help them use the advanced air defense systems against attack from the air and hold Qaddafi's forces back from recapturing Cyrenaica. This option was overtaken by events as Qaddafi's loyalists began thrusting into rebel territory in mid-week.
In any case, it is fraught with difficulties. Washington would be reluctant to go into Libya alone, especially as this option would entail a long-term military presence in a Libya carved up into two or more entities for an indefinite period. Former US expectation of a collaborative incursion by the powerful Egyptian army has faded. Cairo has opted out of Libyan involvement for the time being.
Furthermore, the Libyan ruler may even welcome US military intervention because he has laid a military trap for this very eventuality.
Like President George W. Bush and his advisers, who refused in 2003 to heed warnings of the agonizing guerrilla war Saddam Hussein and his sons held ready for the American invaders (DEBKA-Net-Weekly was the only Western publications that starting running this warning in the fall of 2002), President Obama too appears to be ignoring a similar peril eight years on.
The planning Qaddafi has long held ready to ward off bids to unseat him by a domestic or foreign power (see separate article on the clandestine war in Libya) entails attacks on the foreigners, taking prisoners, and then going to ground with his sons among loyal Saharan tribes.
Even if his enemies prevail, Qaddafi means to vanish in a cloud of desert dust and elude pursuit in the same way as Osama bin Laden, while continuing to wage war on the United States.
One of Obama's closest advisers put the American adventure in Libya this way: "It's a roll of the dice, but it's also a response to reality."
But the US president hastily decided more realistically this week not to trust in the roll of the Libyan dice for now.