McCain: It's starting to look like a stalemate in Libya; Update: Obama says it's a stalemate -- but only militarily

I wonder how much longer it’ll be before the word “partition” starts popping up in news stories. One of Qaddafi’s right-hand men told a BBC correspondent a few weeks ago that he thought the regime might accept the idea. All it would take is some new borders, a division of oil revenues, and, er, a constant NATO air presence to ensure that Qaddafi doesn’t roll east the minute western air power is gone.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Monday he feared a “stalemate” has developd in Libya that would lead to a more radical government in that country…

“All we need to do is get sufficient air power in there to really nail Gadhafi’s forces, and we can succeed,” McCain said on KFYI radio. “A stalemate is a terrible outcome, because if you have a stalemate you open the door for radical Islamists to come in and hijack this revolution.”…

McCain, who emphasized that he, like Obama, would not support sending ground troops into Libya, said the U.S. is relying only on hope at this point to drive Gadhafi from power. The administration has said it will not forcibly remove him.

“Now we are faced with a situation where we hope Gadhafi will fall, but have no strategy,” he said. “Hope is not a strategy.”

I’ll bet Maverick enjoyed that little dig at his old rival’s campaign mantra. It’s almost disappointing that he didn’t add, “And Change is not a plan.” As for the substance, I’m not sure why he thinks total victory by the rebels is less likely than a stalemate to be a vehicle for jihadis. There’ll be an insurgency no matter which side wins, so mujahedeen eager to hone their battle skills won’t want for opportunities. He’s right, though, about how the lack of U.S. air power is hurting NATO. If you thought that nuclear powers like France and Britain backed by U.S. logistical support wouldn’t have much trouble with a third-tier Third World dictator, think again:

Less than a month into the Libyan conflict, NATO is running short of precision bombs, highlighting the limitations of Britain, France and other European countries in sustaining even a relatively small military action over an extended period of time, according to senior NATO and U.S. officials.

The shortage of European munitions, along with the limited number of aircraft available, has raised doubts among some officials about whether the United States can continue to avoid returning to the air campaign if Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi hangs on to power for several more months.

U.S. strike aircraft that participated in the early stage of the operation, before the United States relinquished command to NATO and assumed what President Obama called a “supporting” role, have remained in the theater “on 12-hour standby” with crews “constantly briefed on the current situation,” a NATO official said.

Decades of sheltering under the U.S. security blanket has left Europe without the AC-130s and A-10 Warthogs that would come in handy against Qaddafi’s ground forces, so the dilemma that’s developing for Obama is whether to take McCain’s advice and restore U.S. air power to the mission or play it safe politically and let Europe do what little it can to keep Qaddafi at bay. The risk in staying out of it is that Qaddafi’s attacks on civilians appear to be getting more ferocious as the stalemate drags on. Both Ajdabiya and (especially) Misrata are being pounded by rockets and mortars with no evidence of western intervention to push Qaddafi back:

“(With) all of this happening, we haven’t seen NATO,” Mohammed said, referring to the alliance that has led airstrikes against Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi’s military resources. “There have been no strike for four days in Misrata.”

Misrata residents are “disappointed and let down” by NATO, he said. “They hear NATO flying above, but Gadhafi’s forces do not run from them anymore. Gadhafi’s forces are not threatened by NATO anymore. The NATO planes are circulating as the destruction continues.”

More than 260 Libyans have been killed during the seven weeks that Misrata’s been under siege, but C.J. Chivers of the Times claims that in one triage tent alone, 50-60 wounded are being brought in each day with an average of 10 patients dying. Lord only knows what’ll happen if/when Qaddafi’s troops re-enter the city; ironically, because Obama and western leaders have staked the legitimacy of the mission on preventing a humanitarian disaster, Qaddafi may feel extra temptation to start killing people en masse. NATO’s going to have to decide whether it wants to deepen its involvement, replete with a renewed American effort, in an all-out effort to push Qaddafi back from rebel strongholds or whether it’s prepared to risk the horror of a massacre and a severe blow to its prestige. In lieu of an exit question, read this piece by Leslie Gelb about the lack of any good options remaining in Libya. Quote: “[A]s time passes inconclusively in Libya, it becomes harder still to convince Iran and North Korea that NATO is not a paper tiger.”

Update: Via reader Matt, I missed this on Friday. Skip ahead to 48 seconds in. Indeed it is a stalemate on the ground, says The One. But no worries: We’re squeezing Qaddafi in a lot of non-military ways. Whether that resolves the problem of preventing a humanitarian disaster in the near term, I leave to you to judge.

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