On April 4, America disencumbered itself of the war in Libya. For this, President Barack Obama deserves full credit after making every possible mistake. He espoused the cause of a bunch of rebels who are still an unknown quantity in Washington and Europe; he told Muammar Qaddafi to pull his forces out of all the Libyan cities he took back from the rebels and said he must step down – unrealistically; and he justified US military intervention in a war he labeled "humanitarian."
But he also grasped just in time that America must get out of this conflict – and fast. America's lead-role therefore ended after 17 days.
US president had first to take on board the assessment of his intelligence advisers that the Libyan rebel movement was a dud with no hope of unseating Qaddafi. They told him it is made up of muddled, squabbling, ragtag elements that would require years of training and massive funding to be upgraded to any level capable of challenging the Libyan ruler.
This assessment will not surprise the DEBKA-Net-Weekly readers who read our military and intelligence prognoses and analyses in the second half of February and early March.
Then, Qaddafi looked as thought the cards were stacked against him. America's exit from the war gave him a new lease of life and set back the hopes of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who in mid-March were still certain of America's involvement and believed it was the key to an Arab partnership in the campaign against Qaddafi.
Separate French and British agendas in Libya
However no Arab partnership has eventuated. Qatar ordered the six fighter planes it committed to the no-fly zone not to venture into Libyan air space; the two Jordanian fighters planes provided were never co-opted to the British or French squadrons operating in Libya. The absence of a NATO-Arab coalition served Washington well as another pretext for quitting.
But its overruling reason was the profound suspicion that the British and French leaders each has his own agenda for making the war in Libya the most momentous and significant chapter of the Arab Revolt of 2011:
Prime Minister Cameron and the British oil companies want to get their hands on Libyan oil to help the British economy to eventually haul itself out of an epic mess.
The bigger the battles in Libya, the faster oil prices soar and lift British revenues.
This happened when battles escalated in the past ten days, although their intensity was much exaggerated. On April 6, British bombers struck the Sarir oilfield, damaging the pipeline connecting the oilfield to the Mediterranean port of Hariga. London later denied responsibility for this attack, but nonetheless benefited from the resulting oil hike.
President Sakrozy needs the war in Libya for two reasons: first, to appear before the French people as a great national leader able to deliver what French-American expert Dominique Moisi, who divides his time between Harvard and Paris, defined in mid-March as "a national identity."
Moisi wrote: "In the eyes of the French, France's international status remains a key ingredient in forming their own national identity."
NATO Secretary, Germany, Turkey block Anglo-French strategy
Second, the French president is campaigning hard to win back the many voters who have abandoned him and his party in time for an election next year. According to recent polls, approximately two-thirds of French voters approve of President Sarkozy's military initiative in Libya. But that hasn't translated into higher personal approval ratings. Record lows remain of around 26 percent notwithstanding the wars Paris is leading in Libya and the Ivory Coast.
President Obama and most of his advisers eventually agreed that by no reckoning could the causes motivating the two European leaders fall under the heading of humanitarian in contrast to many other conflicts on the African continent. Anyway, America has its hands full in Afghanistan and unfinished business in Iraq.
London and Paris were unperturbed by the US exit.
When the US led the coalition effort in Libya, they were confident of their ability to dictate its goals and tempo. And when Washington bowed out, they felt they were in an even better position to set the pace and call the shots for NATO which took over in the first week of April.
But Sarkozy and Cameron failed to reckon on three tough nuts standing in their way: NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and two of its members, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Rasmussen and the NATO military commander in Libya, Canadian Three-star General Charles Bouchard, had no intention of following the script laid down by London and Paris, least of all the line of action sold them by the British and French representatives attached to rebel headquarters in Benghazi.
NATO had its first chance to take a stand on Tuesday, April 12 when the rebels were, too weak to hold on and prevent Qaddafi's forces reaching their stronghold in Benghazi by the weekend unless NATO warplanes clobbered government forces.
At that point, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé complained NATO was not doing enough to protect Libyan noncombatants and the alliance must intensify its air strikes against Qaddafi's forces.
NATO turned them down, stating that the operation in Libya must comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1973 – i.e., not with the requirements of London and Paris.
This biting exchange, illustrating the depth of the disagreements within the alliance, arose from a development debkafile reported exclusively on Monday, April 11: Chancellor Merkel had quietly sent an emissary to Tripoli with NATO blessing for a stab at brokering an end to the war.
The arrival of German secret service ex-coordinator, Bernd Schmidbauer, was hardly noticed in the fanfare surrounding the arrival in Tripoli Sunday, April 10 of African Union delegation headed by South African President Jacob Zuma.
The African delegation obtained Qaddafi's consent to a "road map" for ending the war in Libya and leaving him in power transitionally, but ran into a flat rejection from the Provisional National Council in Benghazi, which would accept nothing less that Qaddafi's instantaneous removal.
Schmidbauer had several interviews with the Libyan ruler and his son Saif al-Islam after Berlin agreed that future negotiations would not require Col. Qaddafi to leave Libya under any circumstances.
NATO members are therefore deeply divided over the diplomatic endgame for Libya – a polarization marking the "contact group" meeting in Qatar Wednesday, April 13: London, Paris and up to a point Rome want Qaddafi out, whereas Germany leads a group ready to end the war on a compromise that meets demands for democratic reforms but leaves the Libyan ruler in place during a transitional period. This view is endorsed by the African Union.
One British foot in and one out of Libya
The Americans are taking a back seat in the argument. The complicated Turkish position is diagnosed in a separate article in this issue.
Monday, April 11, before the Doha meeting, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini hurried over to London to consult with his British counterpart on how to save the rebels' international support from collapsing now that they are left with only three backers.
He found the British more or less with one foot in and one foot out of the Libyan conflict on the grounds that it was becoming too long and too expensive for their doddering economy to support. They complained that the other NATO members were not pulling their weight by putting up military assets and sharing in the financial cost of the operation.
The Foreign Office tried playing for time by sending Libya's ex-foreign minister Musa Kusa, who defected to Britain two weeks ago, to Doha to meet Qatari officials and "Libyan representatives."
Kusa's loyalties are still a cipher. He may still have a role to play at some point in the fate of his country. Indeed, he could even return to Tripoli on behalf of some party or turn out to have faked his defection.
But the endgame is already in sight. London is in a race with Paris to see who comes up first with an exit strategy from Libya. The diplomatic ball is therefore rolling.