The inherent contradictions between the Obama administration's stated policy aim of removing Moammar Qaddafi from power and the restrictions on the military operations now underway in Libya may be reaching a decisive point. (For more on what's going on in Libya, see AEI's Critical Threats website, which is closely tracking the conflict as it unfolds.)
As the regime forces press their advance once more, debate among the coalition partners committed to Qaddafi's departure has focused on the desirability of arming the rebels. The rebels will undoubtedly acquire arms and some training, but any such development in their capabilities is unlikely to prove decisive in any short period. The rebels will not acquire (or be given) equipment matching the capabilities of Qaddafi's artillery and missiles, the armored vehicles that would be necessary to advance in the face of such fire, or, above all, the discipline and fighting spirit needed to face such a wall of fire. If the coalition of states seeking Qaddafi's departure is serious, the next logical step is eliminating his heavy weapons whether they are imminently threatening civilians or not.
Media reporting and military briefings suggest that NATO airstrikes have been restricted to Qaddafi's forces and equipment that are advancing, resupplying positions in contested areas, or engaged in the command-and-control of forces threatening civilian populations. They have not, by all accounts, targeted even heavy weapons that remain stationary in areas friendly to Qaddafi. It appears—although this is less clear—that they have also refrained from striking elements of a loyalist force that maneuvered through the desert to outflank rebels advancing on Sirte. This restraint is in line with the language of the U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing the operation—NATO forces do not appear to have a mandate to protect armed rebel forces under attack by Qaddafi loyalists. Presumably for that reason, NATO refrained from striking Grad missile launchers--the destruction of which is well within the technical capabilities of the alliance—that were shooting at armed rebels. It is also possible that the coalition refrained from attacking those missile launchers and other heavy weapons in Sirte out of fear of causing civilian casualties, particularly in a pro-Qaddafi area where they would immediately be displayed to the world, potentially undermining international political support for the effort.
Qaddafi's forces appear to have learned an important lesson, at least for now: Situating themselves among relatively friendly populations and awaiting disorganized rebel assaults will protect them from NATO attacks and allow them to decimate and demoralize the opposition. They may not be able to advance rapidly to retake ground they have lost (with some exceptions), but they can consolidate their hold on the critical terrain that remains to them.
We thus find ourselves in an uncomfortable game of chicken. Qaddafi and his supporters are betting that international will to attack them will erode faster than their cohesion and ability to fight, while the coalition is betting that Qaddafi and his lieutenants will collapse first.
The Obama administration will be challenged to pursue numerous contradictory objectives simultaneously: maintaining the will of Libya's rebels not merely to hold their own ground, but to continue bloody attempts to drive Qaddafi from the seat of his power, maintaining the cohesiveness of a fragile coalition explicitly not designed to drive Qaddafi out, preventing humanitarian catastrophe, keeping weapons out of the hands of Islamist extremists (and from proliferating generally in a chaotic conflict environment), and denying international spoilers such as China and Russia the opportunity to use any expansion of military action to turn the tide of international opinion against the effort. The decision to arm the rebels would be an attempt at careful calibration among these objectives—it would not be an expansion of the NATO military effort, nor would it look like direct coalition intervention, but it would stiffen the spines of the Libyan opposition and, presumably,demoralize Qaddafi and his circle.
Such careful calibration is unlikely to succeed. International spoilers will criticize such actions as escalation anyway. The rebels will quickly discover that their capabilities to withstand the kinds of attacks they just faced are not actually going to increase—and they may even wait and adopt a more cautious posture in anticipation of the arrival of new equipment. The risks of such weapons getting into the hands of al Qaeda affiliates has been overblown—it is hard to imagine what weapons we would actually provide that the terrorists do not already have ready access to. The risk of helping to arm the Libyan population generally for a larger civil war, however, is great. And, considering that coalition warplanes are already bombing command centers, the provision of more AK-47s or anything on that order to the rebels is unlikely to break Qaddafi's will.
Administration strategy toward Libya has closely followed the Clinton administration's approaches to Balkan conflicts. But the administration is now running the risk of skipping a key step. During the Balkans conflicts, the heavy weaponry of the Serb forces was also identified as a key enabler and critical vulnerability. One of the most important military decisions made during those operations was to seek out and destroy that enabler. Regardless of the various diplomatic and public relations challenges it poses, the analogous action in Libya is the next logical step of this campaign.
Attacking Qaddafi’s military equipment—whether it is threatening civilian populations or not—is an essential next step, but it does not guarantee success for the rebels, still less for the U.S. Its advantage is that it does not commit the U.S. or the West particularly more deeply into this conflict than we already are—it would keep the military effort limited to precision strikes against military targets with the aim of supporting the rebels. It shares its disadvantages with the policy the administration is already pursuing—it leaves the West with no real control over the developing situation in Libya, no greater insight into the shifting motivations, aims, and composition of the insurgents, and little ability to protect urban populations from attack by fighters already among them. Above all, it is the next step along a path that allows this conflict to drag on, which is one of the most undesirable outcomes. But since the U.S. and its allies have categorically ruled out any measures that could force a rapid resolution to the conflict, it is the best thing to try next.