Cat and Mouse in the Libyan Desert

With last night's urgent passage of a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the imposition of a "no fly zone" over Libya AND collateral authority to take "all necessary measures" to implement it (no "boots on the ground") the hard part begins, because Gaddafi is no pushover when it comes to outfoxing his opponents.

The 11th hour resolution is open to wide interpretation, and now step-by-step diplomatic and military planning is well underway to establish its parameters.

But it was rushed through first and foremost to prevent the democratic opposition to Gaddafi from being routed from Benghazi in a battle that would have led to a bloodbath in this heavily populated redoubt.

Will Benghazi be saved from Gaddafi's encirclement?

For the moment, the resolution came in the nick of time for Benghazi's beleaguered defenders.

It did not take long for Gaddafi to shrewdly declare something I knew he would do: a so-called unilateral ceasefire designed to forestall a foreign military attack on his paltry air defenses and ground forces on Benghazi's outskirts.

Whether France, Britain and the U.S. along with and Arab League members will fall for his gambit and refrain from taking overt military action against Gaddafi, or brush aside Gaddafi's "pledge" to freeze his impending assault on Benghazi, will depend on various factors:

First, will Gaddafi's now emboldened opponents refuse to honor his unilateral ceasefire and goad Gaddafi's forces into military action, prompting an air attack by UN signatories despite Gaddafi's unilateral ceasefire declaration? Are Gaddafi's forces continuing to encircle Benghazi despite his declaration?

Second, how will the UNSC resolution be interpreted? Is its goal to buy breathing room for the opposition to regroup and rearm in order to swing the attack back across the desert to Tripoli under protective allied air cover? Or is it merely a license to freeze the military equation to protect the opposition in Benghazi and impose a "painful stalemate" on Gaddafi for an indefinite duration with the hope that other UN-sponsored sanctions will grind him down and cause more tribes to revolt against him?

In other words, is the resolution a license to ultimately seek "regime change" by enabling the opposition to launch a counteroffensive under foreign air cover and tactical air support?

Third, how will the rules of engagement be negotiated among the players who actually intend to commit military forces to enforce the UNSC resolution? Will this "coalition of the willing" allocate the resources to impose a "no fly zone" across all of Libya? Will it use airpower to impose a "no drive zone" to prevent Gaddafi's tanks and armored personnel carriers from totally encircling Benghazi and cutting it off from any potential relief from the sea or from Egypt? Will the airpower be used to attack Tripoli's military installations and Gaddafi's command and control facilities as well as to blockade his ability to bring in further military support from his African allies?

Fourth, how long can this coalition remain united in its goals and objectives, if at all? If the underlying purpose of the UN's action is to seek the overthrow of Gaddafi's repressive regime, how will the opposition in Benghazi accomplish this objective with the assistance of outside military intervention that denies authority to lend ground forces from any outside source?

For the moment, France is the only nation to formally recognize the democratic opposition in Benghazi as the legitimate Libyan government. Will other governments follow France's lead? If so, what will that mean insofar as further isolating Gaddafi? Will our allies go further than we are prepared to go?

While everyone's immediate focus is on Gaddafi's next move, Arab states have been surprisingly united in a robust determination to stand up to Gaddafi following the Arab League's vote in favor of a "no fly zone."

Reports from Egypt indicate that the Egyptian military, with the support of Saudi Arabia, has been covertly rearming Benghazi's defenders despite Egypt's professed neutrality when the Arab League voted. This robs Gaddafi of the most potent propaganda weapon he had against his opponents; namely, that they are tools of Western imperialists merely making a grab for Libya's oil.

With an Arab-sponsored resupply effort underway to Benghazi, it is highly unlikely that Gaddafi's unilateral ceasefire will deter the opposition very long from mounting perhaps a premature and undesirable counteroffensive toward Tripoli; particularly with the knowledge they can count on foreign air cover to support them.

Who will deter them from prematurely taking the offensive that may not take them all the way to Tripoli to finish the job once and for all? What then of the humanitarian costs of a protracted fight?

No one knows now how long it will take for the democratic opposition to regroup and rearm sufficiently to launch a counteroffensive toward Tripoli. It may be weeks before the Benghazi Provisional Government feels it has the forces to do so -- and is that the desired goal of this enterprise?

That is why our potential intervention is such a slippery slope, despite French and British bravado.

The U.S. has no strategic interest in the battle for Libya other than a humanitarian objective of preventing a massacre of Libyan civilians. The Obama administration would like Gaddafi to go. That is a noble objective that the president declared without a policy to back it up.

But now that the White House has been more or less compelled into taking belated action by its principal NATO allies, the Obama administration must remain vigilant against efforts by the Libyan opposition to trick the U.S. into taking unwarranted actions that pulls us into another desert quagmire.

What would happen if Gaddafi's opponents cannot, even with resupply and air cover, launch a quick and ultimately successful military counteroffensive to defeat Gaddafi's forces on the battlefield and take them all the way to Tripoli?

The last thing we need to be doing is providing air cover for an extended, bloody military stalemate that drags on and on. How will Libya's tribes react if a desert stalemate leaves Gaddafi beleaguered in Tripoli for an indefinite period?

More than anything, the Obama administration needs its own strategic policy to govern how to decipher and implement the UN's resolution before that policy, which should have been constructed weeks ago, becomes someone else's policy forced on the U.S.

Caveat emptor!