Barack Obama insists that the mission in Libya is to protect civilians, not to wage war against Moammar Gaddafi. If so, the Washington Post reports that the results thus far indicate that the Western coalition needs to rethink its strategy:
Four days of allied strikes have battered Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s air force and largely destroyed his long-range air defense systems, a top U.S. commander said Tuesday. But there was little evidence that the attacks had stopped regime forces from killing civilians or shifted the balance of power in favor of the rebels.
Gaddafi loyalists made further advances into thebesieged western city of Misurata, continued to pound the small town of Zintan southwest of Tripoli, the capital, and fired artillery to hold at bay rebels attempting to regroup outside the strategic eastern town of Ajdabiya.
The Libyan military’s attacks and the mounting civilian deaths call into question whether the internationally imposed no-fly zone can achieve its goal of protecting civilians, let alone help loosen Gaddafi’s grip on power. It seemed unlikely that the coalition, which has argued in recent days over the scope and leadership of the allied mission, would countenance a significant escalation.
That has been the question since Friday, when Obama ended weeks of vacillation and finally decided to apply American military power to the situation. Had Obama decided earlier to use military force, when Gaddafi’s forces were bottled up in Tripoli and the rebels controlled entire cities, an air campaign could have stopped Gaddafi from breaking out and besieging “liberated” Libyan villages and cities. Bombers would have stopped armor from rolling down the highways, at least, and would likely have discouraged infantry movements on foot as well. Also, the target selection would have been much more clear for Western pilots and cruise-missile crews and would not have risked the civilian deaths that intervention was supposed to prevent.
The weeks of dithering allowed Gaddafi to seize the initiative and the window of opportunity for an air war success to close. By the time that the UN, the Arab League, and Obama finally all decided to act, it was at least almost too late. The coalition can no longer keep Gaddafi out of Benghazi and Misurata, because his forces are already there and are too close to the civilian populations to attack directly. The only safe targets are Gaddafi’s fixed military installations and his lines of communication to Benghazi and Misurata, which looks a lot more like a traditional multinational war than a humanitarian intervention.
Obama has ruled out “boots on the ground” in this mission. Let’s put aside the obvious hypocrisy in the fact that close-in bombing attacks require ground spotters for accurate target selection, so we either already have boots on the ground in a literal sense or we’re dropping bombs blindly in densely-populated areas. There will be no other way to “protect civilians” now than to put an army between Gaddafi and those population centers. No one seems to have the stomach for that, and for good reasons. Just in practical terms, no one has an army available for that task, and it would take months to get one in place, by which time this war is almost certain to be over.
Under the circumstances, waging war against Gaddafi to force his removal is the only mission objective with a chance of success, and it’s the only one that the West refuses to embrace.