Last minute breaking news: The NATO Secretary has just announced that the Alliance would undertake indirect command of the Libya operation through a steering committee headed by France and Britain. This mechanism will allow the US to take a back seat.
The first three days of Operation Odyssey Dawn against Muammar Qaddafi quickly exposed disagreements among its leading partners in Washington, London and Paris – both among the three allies and within their administrations.
Unresolved still is the argument among the US, Britain and France over the operation's endgame: Is it Qaddafi's overthrow, defeat or final send-off as a "legitimate target" – the term used by British Prime Minister David Cameron?
Most strikingly, the argument filtered down to the operational levels conducting the war – witness the outspoken British Chief of Staff Gen. Sir David Richards and the US Africa commander and chief of operations, Gen. Garter Ham, whose utterances seriously hampered the war effort.
Furthermore, from the word go, the task of commander in chief was never clearly labeled.
On Day Two, Sunday March 20, after Gen. Carter Ham made a televised appearance in this capacity, he was quickly pushed aside. The Director of the Joint Staff, Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, then began presenting briefings at the Pentagon on the American angle on the war situation.
It was soon obvious that Ham and Gortney were far apart on the US role in the operation and its objectives. For example: Gortney affirmed that the no-fly zone was approved to cover Libyan skies from Benghazi in the east to Tripoli in the west, with the Gulf of Sidra cities in between, whereas Ham had referred only to the airspace over Benghazi.
The operation was further marred by the overblown reports based on crudely stitched-together and non-credible information issued almost around the clock by the bureau of French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee and by Prime Minister Cameron's office at 10 Downing Street.
Both portrayed a major war waged by massive naval and air forces, when in fact the action was pretty limited to small pockets. The damage inflicted on pro-Qaddafi's forces was likewise painted colorfully enough to convey the impression they had been crippled and the Libyan ruler was on the point of surrender. The same sort of hyperbole was applied to the gains made by rebel forces in the wake of Western military pressure. One British general even claimed that Qaddafi's entire air force had been eliminated.
These accounts were not only incorrect but militarily implausible.
While most conflicts and wars generate a measure of disinformation and propaganda, the Libya operation was not 72 hours old before it yielded bucketfuls of disinformation which generated political and military embarrassments.
The most serious fallout came from the way the British and French propagandized NATO and Arab nations as definitely acquiescing to act as providers of broad international legitimacy for the anti-Qaddafi coalition – according to their interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of March 19.
(That resolution "authorizes Member States…acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory. ")
Obama comes down in favor of the naysayers
From the outset, Sarkozy and Cameron built their plans around NATO and the Arabs filling the void left by the Americans. They knew the US would soon be dropping out of the lead position because the administration was seriously split over the operation.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were all for the offensive against the Qaddafi regime and were seconded by UN Ambassador Susan Rice and Samantha Power, National Security Council special advisor to President Obama on Human Rights.
Flatly opposed to US military intervention in Libya were – and remain – Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen.
Obama has meanwhile endorsed Gates' push for the US to hand the leadership over.
This leaves Sarkozy and Cameron skating on very thin ice over the next commander. The entire Libya operation, tossed about by unreal calculations in its first five days, may be heading for uncharted waters.
Arab "endorsement" unraveled on Day Three when, Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa, realizing that the no-fly decision approved by 22 nations in Paris Saturday, March 19, was code for a mission to overturn the Qaddafi regime, recanted. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hurried over to Cairo on Monday, March 21 to bring him back on board, to no avail.
London then announced that the Arab end of the coalition was not lost because Qatar and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to send jets to join the coalition air effort against Libya. Both Gulf states managed to avoid being pinned down on this.
The NATO, Arab props waver
Then, Tuesday, March 22, the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal's visit to 10 Downing Street, was presented by British media as emitting "positive signals" of Riyadh's coming endorsement of the coalition offensive against Libya at a time of its choosing.
But Saudi King Abdullah had his own fish to fry, as we disclose in a separate item in this issue.
NATO then proved uncharacteristically unyielding. For the first time in its 61-year history, the North Atlantic Alliance Treaty membership was not unanimous in bending to the will of the three Western powers, the US, Britain and France.
Turkey has opted out, under pressure from Tehran to negate the entire Libya venture lest it become a precedent for military intervention in Iran. But more telling is Germany's opposition.
In off-the-record conversations, Chancellor Angela Merkel is scathingly judgmental of President Obama's policy of encouraging the popular revolts against autocratic Arab regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and now Libya. She believes that by flouting the fundamentals of the established international order, his administration will bring on a series of wars – of which Libya is but the first – that will set off major convulsions for decades – not only the Middle East but in the world at large.
Merkel has confided to her associates that history has awarded her the mission of saving Germany (and its trade) from these upsets and the best way to stop the Libya operation is to keep NATO out of it. (See separate item on Germany's new Middle East policy)
Monday March 21, the German weekly Der Spiegel, which is close to German intelligence, the BND, ran photos of US soldiers grinning over the corpses of Afghan civilians they had allegedly killed, among them a 13-year-old boy.
The F-15 crash in Libya was the last straw for Washington
Berlin was signaling that it no longer wished to cooperate with US military operations in the Muslim world in view of the troops' reprehensible conduct and image. The paper said it still held 4,000 similar pictures and video clips in reserve. Washington was warned by this notice that if it keeps up the pressure for Germany to withdraw its objections to NATO's endorsement of the Libya offensive, more American atrocities in Afghanistan may come to light.
This standoff has put paid to the US administration's scheme to transition the operational and logistical command of the Libya no-fly zone from American generals and admirals to NATO headquarters in Brussels. London and Paris had intended to draw the Arabs, especially Egypt, into the coalition effort by proposing that they operate in the framework of NATO, the first such experience for an Arab nation. Hints would be thrown out that such military cooperation might be expanded later to fields of common interest other than Libya.
This plan is still hanging fire.
In the middle of this diplomatic furor, a US F-15 jet crash-landed in Libya. The American marines flown in to the rescue by helicopter saw the two pilots surrounded by Libyan villagers, opened fire and killed at least six of them. But apart from the discovery that the villagers were a welcoming party was the fact that American boots had made contact with Libyan soil in defiance of Obama's pledge.
This incident injected more speed into the US decision to pull away from military involvement in the Libyan operation.
By the end of the week, it looked very much as though Britain and France would be fighting Qaddafi in Libya virtually on their own. They too will have to prove they can get along and work together.