Op-Ed Contributors

West all at sea over Libya

(China Daily)
Updated: 2011-04-09 07:26
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Lack of concrete action plan to 'make Gadhafi go' exposes dilemma in strategy and perpetuates humanitarian crisis

It has been a while since Western forces launched air strikes on Libyan government forces. But it is a pity that they have not yet taken any measure to address the matters of uncertainty that go with such military operations.

On March 17, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, authorizing member states to "take all necessary measures" to protect civilians but exclude "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory". The Security Council decided to establish a no-fly zone over Libya, too, to protect civilians.

On March 19 after a meeting in Paris, Western countries, including the United States, Britain and France, began aerial attacks on Libyan government forces.

The Western forces now claim to have made some headway. According to the US military, the coalition forces have damaged Libya's air force and air defense systems, and effectively established a "no-fly zone" over the country.

Libyan rebel forces have weathered the attacks of the government forces and already begun counterattacks. Besides, NATO has taken full command of the military action from the US.

Such "headway" is a performance-enhancing drug for the coalition forces. Shortly after the military action began, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters: "The destruction of (Libyan leader Muammar) Gadhafi's military capacity is a matter of days or weeks, certainly not months, (although) you can't expect us to achieve our objective in just five days." He sounded quite assured, as if matters of uncertainty did not even exist.

Compared with many British/French politicians, US officials seem to be treading with caution.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had been dismissive of the proposal for a "no-fly zone". Delivering a speech at West Point recently, he told an assembly of army cadets: "Any future (US) defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Gadhafi to step down. Nonetheless, she has been silent on how to make Gadhafi leave the Libyan leadership and whether the US will resort to military means to facilitate that. Clinton seems to be praying for changes in the Libyan government that could drive Gadhafi away.

US President Barack Obama, on his part, insists on ousting Gadhafi through non-military means and is therefore under fire from Republicans. Some have said the US should have intervened in Libya much earlier and helped the rebel forces overthrow the Gadhafi government. Others say the US should veto the UN Security Council resolution, and send US ground forces to Libya to overthrow the Gadhafi regime.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, supports the Obama administration, and has said the president is right about using "non-military means", because the US is now stuck in financial hardship and preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

O'Hanlon, in fact, has proposed a three-step non-military plan. First, the Libyan rebel forces and the Gadhafi regime should cease fire immediately. The intervening powers should follow this up by dispatching international monitors to the ceasefire lines and allowing both sides (the rebel and government forces) to pump oil from their parts.

Second, both sides should accept a national unity government that gives Gadhafi some symbolic, temporary role until his military loyalists are replaced.

And third, Gadhafi must step down from the national government but retain some titular role, say "mayor of Tripoli", in a loose confederation that would prepare for a national election to choose a democratic government in a few years.

O'Hanlon's proposal, in essence, means Gadhafi must go, but that does not look like happening any time soon.

This solution, however, entails uncertainty: Will Gadhafi, the rebel forces, and the US and its allies accept such a proposal?

In his address to the US National Defense University on March 28, Obama did not apparently approve of such a proposal, nor did he suggest a detailed solution himself. He, however, conceded that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake".

Obama said there are two reasons for sticking to non-military means to bring down the Gadhafi regime. On one hand, "if we tried to overthrow Gadhafi by force, our coalition would splinter." On the other, "regime change there (Iraq) took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya".

But even after Obama's March 28 speech, the US will stick to its decision of overthrowing the Gadhafi regime through "non-military means", and the uncertainty surrounding it will add to the already high pressure on the US and put it in a real dilemma. And with so much uncertainty ahead, it will take time for the US to walk out of the dilemma.

The author is a professor of international politics at China Foreign Affairs University.