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Obama's Libyan Gamble, Week Two

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[Note: Last Monday, I wrote an article titled "Obama's Libyan Gamble." This should be read as "Part Two" of that article.]

Events on the ground in Libya, roughly one week after coalition warplanes and cruise missiles began flying, seem to have taken a turn for the better for the rebel forces. Surprisingly, though, the American media and political establishment seems largely focused on any number of ways this war could turn out badly for America, for Libya, and for the world. As city after city falls to the rebel forces, perhaps this narrative will shift somewhat. President Obama is about to give a speech to the nation, which may help focus the media on what is actually going on in Libya, rather than speculating about what could happen. Or perhaps not -- Obama's speech may become "the story" itself, and be picked apart word by word for the next few days, no matter what the rebels are doing in Libya.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the media is in "once bitten, twice shy" mode about cheerleading a new American war. Those in the media with an ounce of self-realization may feel chagrined at their jingoism at the start of our last two overt wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither one turned out as it was supposed to (to put it mildly), and the American public is war-weary after almost ten years of non-stop wars. Perhaps, to be fair, the media is merely reflecting this attitude.

I actually wasn't a big fan of imposing a no-fly zone in Libya myself. But, since we're now in a new war, I prefer to objectively look at what is happening rather than imposing my projections of what could go wrong. First, let's take a look at the military situation, as it now stands.

When the war (or the coalition's involvement in it) began, the rebels held only Benghazi, in the eastern part of Libya. The first few days of the war involved creating a safe no-fly zone, which meant sending over 100 cruise missiles and uncounted bombing runs in to take out both Ghaddafi's air force and his anti-aircraft capabilities. This was quickly achieved. The French shot down one airplane, but for the most part this involved strikes on targets sitting on the ground.

But the real situation-changer was what came next -- the coalition bombing the loyalist forces' tanks and heavy vehicles. Call it imposing a "no-tank zone" or a "no-drive zone." This prevented the loyalist forces from entering Benghazi, and has allowed the rebels to retake all of the coastal towns they had lost before the coalition acted. From Benghazi, the rebels have pushed ever-westward, taking Ajdabiya, Brega, and Ras Lanuf. The initial breakthrough happened in Ajdabiya, but afterwards the rebels have been advancing at an astonishing pace, as the loyalist forces have cut and run from all the other towns, after watching their tanks bombed flat. The loyalist forces (some of them, at least) are reportedly leaving behind their uniforms and ammunition, suggesting this is not merely an orderly retreat but rather mass desertion by Ghaddafi's troops. A rout, in other words. How much of this is wishful thinking and how much is the reality on the ground remains to be seen, however.

The rebels, at this writing, have made it as far as Bin Jawwad, which is the last step before taking on the city of Sirte. Sirte is likely not going to fall as easily as Brega and Ras Lanuf, however. In the first place, it is Ghaddafi's home town, and a strong base of support for him. In the second place, the loyalists are apparently digging in and preparing for a major battle in Sirte.

Sirte is strategically important because it lies between the rebel forces to the east and Misrata in the west. Misrata is currently a battleground, with portions of the city held by rebels, and portions still held by the loyalists (who still have un-bombed tanks to use there). Misrata, very early on in the uprising, was held by rebel forces, but the loyalists took the city in their march to the east (which was halted by the coalition's involvement). Misrata is also the last big city, looking westward, before Tripoli itself.

The rebels might be advised to just bypass Sirte and move on to Misrata. Lay siege to Sirte, guard the approaches to the town, and bottle up a bunch of loyalist forces there. If the rebels could circle around the city and move on to Misrata, this would leave the loyalists in Sirte cut off from their resupply lines. If the loyalists moved out from the city, air power could easily turn them back, it seems. Of course, I don't have accurate enough maps to know if this is even possible (if roads exist which bypass Sirte easily, in other words), but if so it seems to be an option worth considering. The real goal is Tripoli, and taking Misrata would be an enormous victory for the rebels.

One of the open questions Obama may address shortly is whether the coalition should arm the rebels. Diplomatically, we're not supposed to be "taking sides" in the civil war, but this is a fiction only diplomats now believe. We have -- quite obviously -- taken sides already. Whether the U.N. resolutions allow arming the rebels or not is an open question, though. Meaning that another diplomatic fiction may come to pass -- arming the rebels without openly admitting we are doing so (which America has certainly done in previous conflicts).

Outside of the military situation, the coalition seems to have the upper hand on the world stage, at least for the moment. A woman claiming Ghaddafi's soldiers raped her has become a focal point in the media, putting a human face on the regime's brutalities. Obama is likely going to devote a goodly portion of his speech to the fact that N.A.T.O. is taking over the operation, which was his war plan all along. This is happening much faster than any other conflict, and shows a real "coming of age" of the fighting capability of N.A.T.O., which has evolved since the fall of the Soviet Union. N.A.T.O.'s participation in Afghanistan was the real beginning of this, and its command of the Libyan war effort is going to be seen as a real turning point later on (assuming things go well with the setup).

There was one incident which was pretty amazing during the war so far, when two Americans had to bail out of their plane (which, according to official reports, malfunctioned and was not shot down). These airmen had been bombing an Islamic country, and yet they were welcomed and succored by the people on the ground. The mission to rescue the airmen did cause civilian casualties, reportedly killing five or six of them. What was astonishing, however, was an interview of a wounded civilian in a hospital afterwards who praised the American pilots he was trying to help, and bore no ill will towards the rescue mission which had seriously injured him. Think about that for a minute -- this man was shot by American forces while he was trying to aid an American pilot who had been part of an effort to bomb his country, and he was still thanking America for what it was doing. Not exactly the sort of image America is used to watching in this sort of situation, is it?

Qatar announced today it would be helping the rebels out not only by flying missions to patrol the no-fly zone, but also by getting Libya's oil production moving again. Several of the rebel-held coastal towns are ports for oil shipment, and the money generated by the rebels being able to sell oil may allow their nascent government breathing room to get up and running. It will also provide funds for the rebel forces to operate, as well.

President Obama's speech will be important for him domestically, to rally the public behind his war plan and to quell criticisms (or at least change the flavor of them) from war opponents on both sides of America's political divide. By waiting a week to give this speech, Obama can talk about the momentum the rebels have now created, and the rebel victories they have so far achieved -- rather than just speaking optimistically about what he hopes will happen, as he would have had to a week ago. This was a gamble by Obama (within his larger gamble of going to war in the first place), but it could turn out positively for him. If the war goes well, then few people are later going to remember the timing of his speech, or any of the congressional bickering during the earliest days of the war.

Of course, there's no guarantee that the war will go well, or end well. Far from it. There's still a very large possibility that it could become a fiasco, a quagmire, or whatever other term you wish to describe an ill-conceived military adventure. The public, so far, is largely rallying behind the president and this war, but that could melt away very quickly in a populace that is indeed very war-weary in general.

Which brings us back to Obama's gamble. Obama, had he not gone in to Libya, would now be the target of complaints (by the same people who are now criticizing what he did do, most likely) by the Jingoists as having "lost Libya," and by the Bleeding Hearts as having "been responsible for a massacre, by not acting." He chose the route that he did, however, and he's about to explain it to the public. So far, his gamble seems to be paying off fairly well. Militarily, it has been a rousing success, achieving the objectives set without loss of a single coalition life. Politically, Obama will be announcing the handover of a war to the coalition partners. Whether this gamble pays off is still an open question, but at least Obama can claim he is doing so on the schedule he laid out at the beginning -- "days, not weeks."

If the Libyan war ends well -- with Ghaddafi gone and a regime change to a government with much closer ties to the United States than Ghaddafi's (since we helped place them in power) -- then Obama's Libyan gamble will have paid off handsomely. If it deteriorates into a stalemate or loss for the rebels, Obama's gamble is not going to be seen as an intelligent move. A little more than one week in, however, things seem to be going fairly well. If the military situation continues to improve (especially if the rebels take Sirte and/or Misrata), then the cries of "Doom!" from Obama's political opponents will likely fade.

Any military action carries with it a lot of risk. There is the risk to those doing the fighting itself, and there is the risk back at home politically for those ordering the troops to fight. Obama's Libyan gamble has a large amount of risk for him, for America, and for Libya itself. So far, the benefits have outweighed the risks, as the rebels continue to advance with coalition air cover. But Obama's critics are right in one very important sense -- the real gamble is whether Ghaddafi can be dislodged from power. That is still a completely open question. Tripoli is not going to be as easy to overrun as Ajdabiya was. Ghaddafi is still capable of doing all sorts of nasty things before this is over. These risks still exist. And this is going to be the hardest subject Obama tackles in his speech -- how "Ghaddafi must go" is the real objective here, but is not part of the coalition's stated mission. Diplomatic nuance is fine within the U.N. building, but it's going to be tough to explain to the American people.

 

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