THE BLOG

Libya -- It Can Work

Hand-wringing is the new American pastime, that and union busting. The commentariat has just gone addled on Libya. Congress should have been consulted, there should be an exit plan, there's no well-defined mission, there's no plan for who will run a liberated Libya. There were no plans for Tunisia or Egypt either. No one suspected the entire Middle East would be lit up like a forest fire in the year 2011, although I'm sure there will be a few psychics stepping up to having predicted it.

The obvious lack of planning for Iraq was inexcusable, because a war of choice is not entered into as an emergency. Compounding the lack of planning for Iraq was the consequent starvation of the effort in Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to regroup and rebuild for eight years. Eight years, and Bin Laden is still at a semblance of liberty. It's requisite to plan when you're planning to do something. Sometimes you just have to act. Sometimes you need to act, like against Bin Laden out of international furry and sometimes like Bosnia out of humanitarian urgency. Curiously, the GOP now recycles the same criticisms it levied against Clinton on Bosnia that they now levy on Obama for Libya. Another two days of Gaddafi's armored assault on Benghazi would have resulted in a humanitarian disaster.

One side of the Libyan conflict invited us to "attack" their country. Like the Kurds and Bosnians before them, Libyans welcomed us and a UN no-fly zone and "peacekeeping" missions to relieve beleaguered peoples under threat of genocide. Also like the Kurds and Bosnians, Libya has tribal and/or religious divisions. Very, very roughly, Libya is divided in support of Gaddafi east and west.

The diplomatic questions are rife. The national security doubts are troublesome. The ongoing wars of Bush's choice have drained the treasury and hardened the American public to military adventures. We have problems at home that defy our present political capacity for resolution, and we don't need to take on more problems overseas. All reasons enough to be wary of military entanglements in yet another Middle Eastern state. But we were asked to intervene by the Libyan rebels and the Arab League, and compelled to by the extremism of a population under sentence of death by their own government.

Citing the hypocrisy of our military support for Libyans versus our hands-off approach to Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, is absurd. No governments suffering protest have yet promised mass murder except Gaddafi. There is an enormous difference. It's a matter of scale in suppression, not just a matter of suppression of revolts in concept. Head knocking and tear gas and fatalities, political arrests and torture are indelibly evil, but beneath a subjective bar don't reach the level of international emergency. The danger to us all is in how high the consensus of that bar might be raised if left to tyrants. However high, outrage is still not the equivalent of atrocity.

A post-Gaddafi plan is not even an issue at this point. The plan is to stop mass murder. Whatever isn't mass murder in Libya's future is preferable to mass murder. It will take time to sort out the various tribal conflicts and jealousies under which this rebellion was brewed. There is no guarantee of success at forming a superior Libyan state following joint military action. There isn't even a guarantee there will be one. The most essential reasoning is this. Whatever can be done to minimize killing will make the formation of a new state a less onerous task, as we should have learned from Iraq.

Intervention can work in Libya, militarily. In Rwanda a no-fly zone was virtually useless. In Bosnia and Kurdistani Iraq it worked. Bosnia and Iraq had forces based in conventional ground warfare equipment, tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery. Hutus in Rwanda had no such armaments in quantity and were not dependent on unbroken supply chains of fuel and ammunition to be effective against largely unarmed civilians on foot. There were no targets for aircraft in Rwanda. The assault on Libyan rebels, who are armed, requires Gaddafi to use his mechanized weapons systems to win. There are, therefore, targets for aircraft. Without a chain of supply, a mechanized army becomes useless in offense, a bunch of pillboxes stuck wherever they happen to be. After a few days of air strikes, that is what they have already become, isolated and unable to exit the towns in which they are hostage to their own human shields.

The UN resolution condones whatever means necessary to prevent a humanitarian outrage. Attacking Gaddafi's ground forces that are attacking rebels seems to be sanctioned by it. Outside of Benghazi the UN intervention forces did just that by destroying Gaddafi's armored columns. The attack on Benghazi was broken up and melted away. Had they entered the city, fighting would still be going on there using the inhabitants as shields against air power.

It's hard to know how resolute Gaddafi's army is. They seem to have fled after air strikes around Benghazi. A mechanized army is what western air forces are designed to fight. Anti-insurgency is a much more difficult proposition. The composition of Gaddafi's forces is not unknown. It's about half militia, but the rest is heavily equipped with armor and artillery. It's doubtful these will be of any use on offense, being rather conspicuously easy targets from the air, the no-fly zone seeming to include ground movement of armored fighting vehicles as well as air traffic. A major offensive against rebel forces is now virtually impossible without losses that will decimate Gaddafi's army in a matter of one or two major attempts. Benghazi is safe. No match for western air to ground capabilities, Gaddafi's obsolescent armored force is restricted to small scale limited aggressions and defense. If expended, it can't be replaced.

If the "no-fly" policy doesn't extend to supporting rebel offense, Gaddafi's armor and artillery will be a very difficult if surmountable factor. If it's credible to destroy supply transports to Gaddafi armor deployed in defense under the UN mandate, it's only a matter of running the stranded armor out of ammunition and fuel. Any West Point grad could accomplish it.

If successful, the "no-fly" campaign will usher in the hard part, where air force is useless and the ground has been cleared of the advantages of armored vehicles and artillery. It will be more like Rwanda. Then the successful prosecution of battle will depend on the courage and discipline of men with rifles, grenades and bayonets. Discipline is a strong adversary, but will to freedom is stronger and a discipline of its own.

The UN has lifted the Libyan arms embargo for the rebels, only. Given the no-fly cover and arms and supply denied to Gaddafi, the rebels will win in due time. It's a classic formula for military success. Hopefully the rebels will not then massacre Gaddafi supporters. Rebellion ain't easy.