In its threat to use force against the Libyan government, the international community put Muammar Gaddafi into what chess aficionados calls zugzwang. This clever gambit traps the opponent so that any move worsens his or her position. Thus, if Gaddafi continued to battle the opposition in Benghazi, several air forces were at the ready to bombard his army. And if the Libyan leader pursued a ceasefire and political negotiations, he risked a further outbreak of protests in Tripoli from an emboldened population. Along either path lay probable checkmate.
Realizing the bind he was in, Gaddafi attempted to escape his own private zugzwang by announcing a ceasefire and then proceeding to bombard the opposition anyway. British, French, and U.S. jets responded with air strikes against Libyan army positions and air defenses. It has hardly been an even match. The Libyan army was never exactly world-class. It decisively lost its wars with Chad in 1987. Its equipment is obsolete. And recent defections have weakened what little remained of the force. "Even before the air strikes Gaddafi had not been able to mobilize more than about 1,500 men to advance on Benghazi, and many of these were not trained soldiers," writes Patrick Cockburn in The Independent.
Gaddafi is in a weak position, but it's not yet game over. First of all, although the opposition began with the recently successful Cairo Opening, Gaddafi fell back on the Ahmadinejad Defense, responding with brute force and asserting that a sizable portion of the population was behind him. Second, Gaddafi can theoretically use the airstrikes to mobilize his supporters by drawing on nationalist and anti-colonialist sentiment. Finally, the Libyan leader is capable of quicksilver tactical reversals, as demonstrated by his rapprochement with the West and subsequent denuclearization after 2003.
The odds for Gaddafi are long. UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, didn't explicitly call for regime change. But it does recommend that member states "take all necessary measures...to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack." By implementing the UN's "responsibility to protect" doctrine for only the second time, the international community has made an exception to the principle of national sovereignty to avert massive civilian casualties.
Although the UN resolution passed unanimously, there were several important abstentions: the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). "China and Russia are not surprisingly reluctant to engage in Western-led military action under the principle of the 'responsibility to protect,'" writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Ben Zara in Libya: Where Are the BRICs? "Both countries have significant internal turmoil and both prefer to hold on to the option of responding with brute force to domestic opposition if push comes to shove. For India and Brazil the story is not quite so straightforward. Although neither country has been particularly enthusiastic about the concept of a responsibility to protect, both have spent considerable political capital to appear like responsible stakeholders and serious players on the world stage."
For many, the declaration of a no-fly zone was overdue. "Only the Western powers have the means and are in the position to intervene," writes FPIF contributor Islam Qasem in our Strategic Dialogue on Libya. "Not only the Arab League and the African Union have endorsed intervention, but also the Libyan opposition itself has repeatedly called for intervention."
Others are not so certain. Adil Shamoo, writing in the same strategic dialogue, voices "grave doubts that imposing a no-fly zone alone will work. Gaddafi's army has helicopters, tanks, and guns. A no-fly zone alone cannot stop all of them. This is why the Western countries are discussing additional steps including ground forces."
Phyllis Bennis, my colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies, has also raised concerns about the intervention. "The Libyan opposition, or at least those speaking for it, asked for a no-fly zone, for protection from the Gaddafi regime's air force, to allow them to take on and defeat their dictatorship on their own terms," she writes in her invaluable newsletter. (I encourage you to subscribe to it.) "Many of us opposed that idea, for a host of reasons, including the dangers of escalation and the threat of a new U.S. war in the Middle East. But whatever one thinks about that demand, the Security Council resolution went far beyond a no-fly zone. Instead, the United Nations has essentially declared war on Libya."
Even with the international military attack on Gaddafi underway, there's room to shape this intervention. At our Focal Points blog, senior analyst Ian Williams identifies a couple of conditions the international community should follow. "The first is to ensure a sunset clause," he writes. "Any mandate for military action should have precise limitations both about the nature of operations and a time limit. It should return to the Council within days or weeks for a renewal of authority. Secondly, there is a need to ensure that there is some element of shared control over operations."
Unlike on the chessboard, the situation in Libya is far from black and white. Serious tribal, regional, and ideological divisions suggest that even if Gaddafi were toppled, civil war might yet continue. The Arab League, which initially called for the no-fly zone, is now getting cold feet over the scope of the bombing campaign. The Pentagon was ambivalent about implementing the no-fly zone, is adamant about not committing ground forces, and seems eager to pass leadership of the campaign to allies. Nevertheless, the Libya campaign offers hawks a useful lifeline during the current budget debate in Washington, and military engagements assume a logic of their own that often dictates escalation even for the ordinarily risk-averse.
As if this were not complicated enough, other equally threatening situations beckon. Yet don't expect more military interventions under the responsibility to protect doctrine. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh's government cracked down on protesters on March 18, killing at least 46. The protesters are still massing in the streets, and key military officers have gone over to the other side. It looks as though Yemenis will oust Saleh, a U.S. ally, without outside help. In Bahrain, all outside intervention has aided the government, with Saudi troops helping to quell unrest and the U.S. government siding with its allies in the ruling family. The absence of a strong U.S. condemnation of the Bahraini government's actions has left the citizens there furious with Washington. And with good reason: does "responsibility to protect" only apply to citizens threatened by governments the United States opposes?
For the moment, the only other protests in the region that might trigger a Libya scenario are the ones spreading in southern Syria. Washington has never concealed its distaste for the regime in Damascus, although relations have warmed ever so slightly since the frosty days of the Bush era. In 1982, the Syrian army bombarded the city of Hama during its confrontation with a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired revolt. The death toll was in the tens of thousands. Would the international community be tempted to intervene if a similar conflict threatened again?
Once upon a time, the turmoil in the Middle East was easy to read - the People were on one side of the chessboard and the Tyrant on the other. But this was always too simple a story. The People have their own complicated and often competing sympathies, and the Tyrants turn out to have some powerful allies. With Libya, the Obama administration is trying to simplify matters once again by insisting that its intervention is purely to protect the People. But Obama and other top U.S. officials have also said that Gaddafi must go. The gap between these two sentiments is large enough to drive a tank through. And that is what people in the Arab world - and people in the United States - are worried about: another U.S. experiment in regime change and nation-building.
There's no question that Gaddafi must go. The question, however, is how he goes. That's a matter for Libyans to decide. The Libyan leader is no slouch at chess - he's aiming for a stalemate so that he can live and play another day. As his opposition gears up for the endgame, the United States and its allies in this endeavor must restrain themselves from tipping over the board in their eagerness to defeat the aging grandmaster of Tripoli.
Follow John Feffer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johnfeffer