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The Muddle at the Middle of NATO's Libya Efforts

If a regime is so monstrous that it warrants a fighting, then how can that fight end with the regime still in power?

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Zohra BensemraŚReuters

When considering the libyan mess that the U.S. and its NATO allies have gotten into, it's helpful to remember the old story of the Irish traveler who asked a farmer for the quickest way to Dublin. Came the reply: "I wouldn't start from here."

NATO's actions in Libya are authorized under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which establishes a no-fly zone and permits "all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack." The resolution condemns the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, but its objectives are strictly limited: they do not extend to justifying the military overthrow of Gaddafi's regime. In his speech on March 28, Barack Obama said that while "there is no question that Libya ... would be better off with Gaddafi out of power ... broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake."

There is a profound illogicality in all this. If a regime is treating its people so monstrously that military intervention from the outside is justified, then it is ludicrous to suppose that such a situation can end appropriately with that regime still in place. If so, what was the point of the humanitarian intervention in the first place?

This muddle at the heart of NATO's policy is not the only one. Resolution 1973 may appear to permit "all necessary measures" in pursuit of its humanitarian objectives. But that carte blanche is limited in two ways. First, the resolution excludes the possibility of a "foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." Second, in a preamble, the Security Council reaffirms its "strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity" of Libya. So, no boots on the ground, no attempt to recognize rebel-held eastern Libya's de facto independence.

I'll leave it to international lawyers to parse whether the plans by European nations to assist in training rebel forces are lawful under Resolution 1973. But that apart, help to the rebels is pretty much limited to bombing Gaddafi's forces along the Mediterranean.

In all likelihood, such help will not be decisive so long as the allies rely on airpower alone. Since World War I, politicians have loved airpower. Smashing enemies into mangled flesh and bone from 20,000 ft. is much less risky — I mean, to those doing the smashing, not to those smashed — than having to deploy soldiers on the ground. It's hardly surprising that early forays into airpower were led by imperialist powers like Britain and Italy. Such actions sometimes worked. But without other armed support, and against an enemy fighting in urban conditions, able and willing to place its forces and artillery among civilians, airpower is both risky — bombs don't distinguish between soldiers and civilians, between local party headquarters and the Chinese embassy — and often ineffective.

NATO's bombing of Bosnian Serb positions in 1995, for example, did not on its own force Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to the bargaining table. The impact of Croatian ground forces, which had just swept the Serbs out of Krajina, helped enormously. Similarly, NATO's bombing of Serb targets during the Kosovo war in 1999 did not on its own bring peace. It was the combination of the bombing and plausible NATO plans to invade Kosovo, plus skillful diplomacy to bring Russia onside, that made Milosevic fold.

Of course, NATO could expand its reading of "all necessary measures" to aggressively target Libya's infrastructure, as it did in Serbia in 1999, though to do so would risk significant civilian deaths. And one understands that in a war waged by coalitions, muddled logic is inevitable. "If we tried to overcome Gaddafi by force," Obama said on March 28, "our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish our mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air." Yes, but we are trying to overcome Gaddafi by force — honestly, why else are we flying all those missions? — and if we are serious about it, we do indeed risk killing many civilians from the air. That is how airpower works.

There are those who think the key to Libya is patience and that somehow or other, Gaddafi will soon be out. (Who would follow him, however, is anyone's guess.) But patience, though a virtue, is not a strategy. At the heart of the Libyan mess is the old issue of ends and means. If getting Gaddafi out of power in Libya was the desired end of the U.S. and its allies, then they should have willed the means to make it happen. If they were not prepared to will those means, they should not have said their desired end was Gaddafi's departure. How can we solve the Libyan muddle? I wouldn't start from here.