Why John McCain Is Optimistic About Libya

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Nasser Nasser / AP

Arizona Senator John McCain speaks at a press conference in Benghazi, Libya, on April 22, 2011

The war in Libya is not going well. Muammar Gaddafi shows no sign of giving up power. His forces' siege of the rebel-held city of Misratah has killed upwards of 1,000 people, including two Western journalists. One month in, NATO's air campaign is plagued by halfhearted commitment and intracoalition blame-passing. The rebels on whose behalf the U.S. and its allies intervened have failed to advance much beyond their strongholds in eastern Libya. Only a few inveterate optimists seem to believe the anti-Gaddafi forces still have a chance to win.

John McCain is one of them. "Gaddafi is a third-rate military power," he told me on Sunday. "This isn't the Wehrmacht we're taking on. These are a bunch of goddamn mercenaries that are highly paid — but one thing we know about mercenaries is that if they think things are going in the wrong direction, they'll get out of Dodge." I had run into McCain the previous night in Cairo, as he was finishing a quiet dinner with two of his aides, at a Chinese restaurant overlooking the Nile. He was just back from a day trip to rebel-held Benghazi, Libya's second largest city. In McCain's view, the West still has tools at its disposal that can bring about Gaddafi's downfall, even without a major commitment of U.S. military force. In two conversations with me before he departed Egypt for Oman, McCain described what he saw in Benghazi and laid out what it will take for the Obama Administration to avoid a foreign-policy disaster.

The fighting in Misratah over the past week has been horrific, McCain said. By the time they arrived in Benghazi, a 20-hour journey by sea, wounded rebel fighters had little chance for survival. "You just see dead after dead," McCain said. One man's entire face had burned off. McCain asked a doctor if another casualty, bleeding from his chest but still breathing, had a chance. The doctor said he'd be dead in an hour.

At the same time, the Senator believes the rebels have succeeded in repelling Gaddafi's attempt to overrun Misratah, despite the regime's claims that local tribes had been sent in to mediate. "Unless Gaddafi were losing, he wouldn't be going through this bull---- about the tribal guys coming in," McCain said. "If he were succeeding, he would just keep doing what he was doing. So this could be a big setback for him." The rebels have "learned by doing" — they have neutralized Gaddafi's advantage in weaponry by improving their use of guerrilla tactics. "Urban warfare is very nasty and individualized," he said, "and the good guys have probably learned how to fight pretty well in that environment."

McCain and his aides weren't blown away by the fighting prowess of the opposition forces they met in Benghazi; their description of the rebels' training exercises sounded a little like watching warm-up drills before a high school football game. "We're talking about a fourth-rate power taking on a third-rate power," he said. And though the citizens of Benghazi cheered McCain, they also said they were baffled at the West's seeming unwillingness to take more aggressive steps to stop Gaddafi's shock troops. "There is some anger, but a lot of it is just, 'I thought the Americans would help us,'" McCain said.

So what do they want? And what, at this stage, can we still provide? According to McCain, plenty. "We should recognize" the rebel leadership as a provisional government, he said, which might open up the financial pipeline to Benghazi. "Get them communications equipment [like] satellite phones — Christ, these guys are still talking on cell phones! We should get them equipment and stuff that may not be weapons directly from us, but stuff they need that would really help. Uniforms, for Christ's sake!" (The Obama Administration has said it will send $25 million in military surplus to the rebels.) Most importantly, the Obama Administration needs to reclaim ownership of NATO's air campaign. "I love the British and I love the French, but they do not have the military capabilities of the United States of America ... We are fighting half a war. You can never win conflicts unless you do what is necessary to win."

In McCain's view, a modest increase in moral and material support to the rebels, plus more aggressive application of American air power — including the use of unmanned drones — would cause the regime to crumble. "I don't think it would be a lengthy campaign. In this kind of warfare, momentum shifts one way or the other." But what if it doesn't? What if, even after we make the Libyan war a fair fight, Gaddafi remains in power? That remains the insoluble Western dilemma, and even McCain is unable to offer a way out. Should we send in U.S. ground troops, which Obama has already ruled out? "There would be demonstrations the likes we haven't seen since Vietnam." Kill Gaddafi, as McCain's Senate ally Lindsey Graham advocates? "That's not something you can count on. You're probably going to take some other people with him. You want to do that? What if you miss? You're going to kill a lot of people. What I'm saying is that it's not so simple."

That leaves two potential outcomes: a prolonged stalemate and possible partition of Libya, which McCain calls the worst of all alternatives, or a negotiated settlement with elements of the Gaddafi regime, which might include one or more of his sons. That's not exactly the bargain the Libyan people thought they were signing on to when the rebellion began. But the longer this drags on, the more it looks like the best one they're going to get.

Ratnesar, a TIME contributing editor-at-large, is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War. His column on global affairs usually appears on Mondays on TIME.com.