NATO's failure in efforts to promote “regime change” in Libya, after two and a half months of bombing and arms supply to various rebel factions, is now glaring.
Obviously NATO's commanders are still hoping that a lucky bomb may kill Moammar Gadhafi, but to date the staying power has been with the Libyan leader, whereas it is the relevant NATO powers who are fighting among themselves.
When British Prime Minister Cameron vied with French President Sarkozy in early March in heading the charge against Gadhafi, no weighty hand of caution seems to have disturbed the blithe mood of confidence in London or Paris or Washington, D.C.
The Western press, along with al-Jazeera, was no help. The early charges of Gadhafi committing “genocide” against his own people or ordering mass rapes were based on unverified rumor or propaganda bulletins from Benghazi and have now been decisively discredited by reputable organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The journalists in Benghazi became cheerleaders for what was evidently from the start a disorganized rabble. The journalists in Tripoli were reluctant to file copy that might be deemed by their editors as “soft” on Gadhafi, a devil figure in the West for most of his four decades in power.
On the other hand, history shows that to drop thousands of bombs and missiles, with whatever supposed standards of 'pinpoint accuracy,' is not going to win you the enthusiastic friendship of the civilians you are bombing, albeit in the guise of protecting their lives.
Recent pro-government rallies in Tripoli have been vast. Libya has a population of about 6 million, with 4 million in Tripoli. Gadhafi barrels around the city in an open jeep. Large amounts of AK-47s have been distributed to civilian defense committees. Were they all compelled to demonstrate by Gadhafi's enforcers? It seems unlikely.
Another pointer to NATO's misjudgments was heavy-handed dismissal of charges from African, Russian and even leaders of NATO countries such as Germany that the mandates of two U.N. Security Council resolutions passed in February and then March — the protection of civilian populations — were being brazenly distorted in favor of efforts to kill Gadhafi and install the ramshackle “provisional government” in Benghazi — a shady bunch from the get-go.
The coalition is now falling apart. French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet gave an interview at the end of last week to a French TV station saying that military action against Libya has failed, and it is time for diplomacy: “We must now sit around a table. We will stop bombing as soon as the Libyans start talking to one another and the military on both sides go back to their bases.”
Longuet suggested that Gadhafi might be able to remain in Libya, “in another room of the palace, with another title.”
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If Longuet's startling remarks were for local consumption on the eve of an Assembly vote, it clearly came as a shock to Prime Minister Cameron and U.S. Secretary of State Clinton. To heighten the impression of a civil war within NATO, Cameron and Clinton rushed out statements asserting the ongoing goal of regime change, and that Gadhafi's departure was a sine qua non, as demanded by the Benghazi gang.
But Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, his country the objective of tens of thousands of refugees from the fighting and from economic dislocation in Libya, is now saying he was against the whole NATO adventure from the start. He may decline to renew in the autumn current basing agreements in Italy for NATO planes. Germany has always been unenthusiastic.
America is playing a double game, reflective of domestic pressures. At the start, the rush to the U.N. Security Council was very much Hillary Clinton's initiative. In political stature, early to mid-February, President Obama was at his nadir. There was growing talk of a one-term presidency. Clinton rushed into what she perceived as a tempting vacuum. Obama, still fighting the “wimp” label, swiftly endorsed the NATO mission.
In terms of equipment, the U.S. has been crucial. According to one French general, 33 of 41 tanker aircraft used in the operation are American, most of the AWACS, as well, all the drones and 100 percent of the laser-guidance kits for bombs. And that's not all.
The main means of command and control of NATO as the huge bandwidth for transmitting all the data is American. The director of military intelligence, Gen Didier Bolelli, revealed that over 80 percent of the targets assigned to the French pilots in Libya was designated by U.S.
Those whose memories stretch back to the Suez debacle of 1956 might recall that Dwight Eisenhower simply ordered the British, French and Israeli forces to abandon the effort to overthrow Egyptian President Nasser. We could well be seeing a less overt rerun of that conclusive demonstration of post-World War II U.S. dominance, with the Obama administration making the point that any effort at asserting European primacy in the Mediterranean region is doomed to failure.
Before his retirement, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the opportunity to twist the knife in a speech in Brussels: “The mightiest military alliance in history is … into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country — yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”
He said ominously: “Future U.S. political leaders … may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost.”
Even if Obama is in fact wholeheartedly for regime change in Libya, the political temperature here does not favor the sort of escalation — hugely costly and much against the public mood — required in the wake of the failure of the bombing campaign.
Right now, the bill of indictment is not hard to draw up. Three major NATO powers committed their countries to a hugely expensive military operation currently in a shambles, with serious long-term consequences for NATO's credibility and pretences to respect for international law — and to what end?