By Wednesday, February 23rd, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini had already admitted he considered reports that over 1,000 had been killed in 1 week of protests in Libya credible. 3 days before, a military mutiny delivered Benghazi to the protesters, breaking Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s grip on that city–permanently, it now appears. The revolt in Libyas’s 2nd-largest city, a traumatized and relatively-impoverished place the size of San Francisco, simultaneously raised the prospect of a mounting humanitarian crisis and offered a gift: Here was a movement–diverse and politically-fractious though it was–committed to the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. In a previous blog entry I sought to explain the connection between Colonel Gaddafi’s basic character and his actions. I have been in favor of a no-fly zone to neutralize Loyalist air power since the Benghazi mutiny. Now this operation seems to have come only in response to a dramatic reversal of Rebel fortunes.
It has been difficult for pilots working for Gaddafi to defect to the Rebels; 2 fighter pilots defected and landed in Malta in the first week of the uprising in late-February; 2 pilots later ejected from their planes rather than bomb Benghazi, allowing the planes to crash in the desert. Many pilots carried out glaringly-obtuse bombing operations against Rebel fighters as they advanced first south, then west from Benghazi. The weird inability of Gaddafi’s pilots to hit Rebel formations on the highway in the desert led to 3 different explanations:
1.) Gaddafi wanted to scare rather than kill the Rebels (which is implausible considering Gaddafi Loyalists have killed as many as 1,500 Rebels by now).
2.) Many of Gaddafi’s pilots are simply incompetent (which is plausible, although they did manage to destroy several captured arsenals around Benghazi).
3.) The wide bombings were the pilots’ way of aiding the rebels by stalling the counterattack.
The rebels advanced as far Bin Jawad by March 5th with the intention of moving on Sirte; this town on Libya’s north-central coast is Gaddafi’s hometown and the headquarters of Libya’s special forces. Because of their momentum up to that time, the Rebels seem not to have considered that Gaddafi was employing a defense-in-depth strategy, writing-off certain regions of the country at least temporarily because they were remote to the bulk of his military and mercenary forces and populated by hostile tribes traditionally repressed rather than integrated into his government’s patronage scheme. When the Rebels attempted an advance on Sirte, they fell back precipitously to their provisional headquarters in Benghazi, suffering relatively high casualties all the way.
At this point President Obama changed tack, shifting from calling Gaddafi’s repression of the Rebels “unacceptable” to acting as if he actually believed it was. The situation, unfortunately, was now urgent; Colonel Gaddafi’s son and heir-apparent, Saif al-Islam, claimed that “This will all be over in 48 hours,” adding on another occasion “I have just 2 words for our brothers in the east: We’re coming.” This was a typical case of bluster by the regime, but it also reflected the Rebels’ rapidly-collapsing front. On March 16th some Rebel forces and citizens actually fled Benghazi in anticipation of a heavy Loyalist assault; most remained, recognizing that this city was both central to the rebellion and (considering its large population) its strongest point. The next day, Thursday, March 17th–1 week ago–the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 authorizing both the institution of a no-fly zone over Libya and the use of “all necessary means” to prevent mass killing of civilians by the Gaddafi regime. Gaddafi’s response on our Friday morning (his Friday afternoon) was to declare an immediate ceasefire–one which was not actually enforced. On Saturday, French Mirage fighter jets took on their first target in Libya–an armored column approaching Benghazi. These were destroyed in a fairly-liberal but probably prudent interpretation of the Security Council mandate to protect Libyan civilians.
Since that time the pressure has clearly been taken off of Benghazi, though about 30 civilians were reportedly killed in an assault on the west of the city. Loyalist forces fell back in the west and are now trying to hold Ajdabiya. The situation in western Libya has become serious, however, as several northwestern towns long-held by Rebel forces have been contested by Loyalists in the past few days. Today Zintan, around 70 miles southwest of Tripoli, is under siege, and at Misurata, a medium-sized city around 120 miles east of Tripoli down the Libyan coast, the situation has become dire. Today CNN reported that a doctor there claims 109 people have been killed and around 1,300 wounded in a callous siege there. Misurata has been in Rebel hands, and isolated and repeatedly besieged, for a month now.
Conservative New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat reasoned that President Obama has insisted on a broadly-supported and -enforced mandate in Libya out of Liberal ideological sentiments; the Liberal Ironist thinks the President has been trying to dodge political criticism for the intervention in a post-Iraq, recently pro-opposition political climate. This was foolish; such a tack wasn’t suggested by close but favorable support for the intervention. The startling lack of a statement by the President on this intervention has invited critical questions.
The recent announcement of a plan to transfer control of the humanitarian operation in Libya to NATO is encouraging as an intermediate step of commitment to that operation; it may also be a political response to the President’s lack of engagement with its purposes. President Obama’s low profile on this operation hasn’t deflected criticism; it has encouraged it. Republican House Speaker John Boehner has demanded clarification from the President on the scope of our operations there; President Obama should have expected that his insistence of a US back-seat on this intervention going forward would have stimulated a lack of confidence in the operation rather than forestall it. Speaker Boehner, of course, raised these objections about the lack of scope of commitment for partisan reasons; he didn’t express any such misgivings when President George W. Bush undertook a full-scale invasion and reconstruction of Iraq. Still, the President should have wanted to address these questions on the eve of enforcement of the no-fly zone. We should have had a statement from the Oval Office a week ago. This is not just about cosmetics, it is an opportunity for the President to affirm that we are protecting key values of our foreign policy in preventing a massacre in Libya. The Liberal Ironist approves of our involvement in a no-fly zone and operations against Loyalist forces on the ground to protect densely-populated Rebel enclaves in northern Libya; both in principle and as a matter of tactics the President should not look like he has committed our forces to this operation guiltily or furtively.