Libyan War: New International 'Contact Group' Off to a Rugged Start

It certainly wasn't the most auspicious way for a potential new international order to begin. There were the live reports from London, where dozens of nations came together to hail a humanitarian intervention in Libya and plan for a post-Gaddafi future. Then there was the live Al Jazeera feed from Libya, where rebel forces were doing their best Road Warrior impressions, in this case of high-speed retreat.

The rebels, frankly, looked like rabble, in sharp contrast to the sharply-dressed diplomats gathered in London to discuss Libya's bright pro-Western future.

Despite alliance air strikes against the regime of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan rebels have been driven back, losing most of their gains since the weekend.

After alliance air strikes emboldened them over the weekend, the rebels had taken town after town, advancing to the outskirts of Muammar Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte. There they encountered a fierce counter-attack that, by the end of Wednesday, had erased nearly all the rebel gains, taking back key oil ports in the process, leaving the civilians of Ajdabiya, just freed from Gaddafi's guns, in fear once again.

It's a rugged start for the new international "contact group" on Libya, a newfound forum that, only a few days ago looked like a sure winner, not to mention a potential precedent in international relations. Western leaders, with some Arab leaders involved as well, had cobbled together a new adhocracy to counter, if not remove, a notorious monster attacking his people and threatening to send the "Arab spring" back into bloody winter.

If one ruthless dictator could be stopped, others might be dissuaded. Or at least think twice.

"I think this is a watershed moment in international decision making," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared. "We learned a lot in the 1990s. We saw what happened in Rwanda. It took a long time in the Balkans, in Kosovo to deal with a tyrant. But I think -- and what has happened since March 1st -- and we're not even done with the month -- demonstrates really remarkable leadership."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking during Tuesday's London Conference on Libya, called for the world "to speak with a single voice" to longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The London Conference on Libya -- some 40 nations plus the UN, EU, Arab League, and, lest we forget, NATO -- turned into the Libya Contact Group, the political oversight body for the military intervention. In an appearance separate from Clinton's, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani announced that the new group will meet in two weeks in Doha, Qatar. Which is also home to the Al Jazeera news channel, now required viewing for anyone serious about following the Arab uprising.

While Clinton is right that a lot has been done in a few short weeks, especially by the creaking standards of international relations, much remains not only undone, but, perhaps worse, unclear.

Of course, you could say that the mission has been largely accomplished. Benghazi has been saved and the attacks on most civilians have been stopped. Gaddafi's forces have been pushed out of Ajdabiya, the no-fly zone has been established, the naval blockade to halt the flow of arms and mercenaries to Gaddafi forces is in place. Of course, civilians are still under siege in Misrata.

But the fact that intervening forces can't go home even if the apparent mission has been accomplished points up the problem. Gaddafi isn't going away, and certainly hasn't agreed to stop attacking his opponents. Even a de facto partition of the country requires international policing.

And of course the French, British, and American governments, not to mention quite a few Arabs, don't want the tense peace of stalemate, they want Gaddafi gone. Even if we're not entirely sure who the Libyan rebels are.

Which is a big problem, because the Libyan rebels clearly can't do it, even with the huge assist of Western air power. There's been no Gulf War-style "shock and awe" but there has been enough to more than give a credible military force a great chance to win.

For President Barack Obama, Libya is turning into more of an obstacle course than a clear-cut road to do right.

President Barack Obama laid out a carefully nuanced position on intervention in Libya.

He says he will act unilaterally to defend America and its core interests. But America and its core interests are not at issue in Libya. The core foreign interests there are more European, and Arab. So why play such a major role, especially since America can't play crusader rabbit around the world? Because, he said in his Monday night address, there was a pressing humanitarian need, regional security and economic issues, and others pressing for action, including major European powers and Arab countries.

This, then, is the focus, as it were, of Obama's nascent doctrine, and the emerging international adhocracy on Libya, a blend of morality and pragmatism.

Of course, he's insistent that America not get too far out front. Or at least, not be seen as getting too far out front. In this, he's positioning himself in as advantageous a domestic political posture as he can.

The Pew Research poll taken right before Obama's speech found only a moderate level of support for the intervention. But it also found that far more view the U.S. as only one of only many actors rather than the leading player.

Notably, most people do not view the United States as the lead actor in the military operation. Fully 57% say that the United States "is just one of a coalition of countries" involved in the military mission; far fewer (35%) say the United States "is leading the military action."

Naturally, the warhawk right, ever insistent on American exceptionalism, by which they mean American supremacy, hates this. But the reality is that we are in an era of limits, and that applies most definitely to America's ability to project power around the world.

Ironically, it's Iraq that made this most obvious.

When atrocities were occurring in the Balkans in the 1990s, I was against intervention at first. Even after the notorious massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, I had my doubts. There were many terrible leaders in the world, and many terrible things happened. Then came Kosovo. Which, after awhile, I supported. It mostly worked out.

But Slobodan Milosevic, for all his ethnic cleansing ways with civilians, was not the canny street fighter that Gaddafi has proved to be since he seized power, and the international limelight, in 1969.

The defection of Libyan Foreign Minister and longtime spymaster Moussa Koussa, which the Guardian reports was arranged by British intelligence, will help. But this thing isn't over yet.

Gaddafi's bloodcurdling speech, vowing an immediate massacre in Benghazi as the UN Security Council prepared to vote, all but guaranteed that military action would be taken against him.

Air strikes proved to be enough to defeat Milosevic and, after months of bombing, end the Kosovo War.

Will that work with Gaddafi? Will Obama and the others be willing to leave Gaddafi in power if it does not, even though the UN Security Council does not call for his removal? That doesn't seem at all likely. And so they will likely have to go farther down the rabbit hole than Bill Clinton ever had to.

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