If you’re unsure about whether our involvement in Libya was a smart idea, former national security adviser Gen. James Jones isn’t going to make you feel much better. CNN’s Candy Crowley asks, “Who are we kidding here” with the notion that we’re not pursuing regime change through military means, which Barack Obama has repeatedly asserted since the start of the war — and Jones agrees. The coalition, including the US, can’t leave Libya while Moammar Gaddafi remains in power, which makes the timing of our sudden departure from leadership look rather curious, as Crowley points out:
CROWLEY: But who are we kidding here, because I get that the mission is a humanitarian one and to stop him from killing his own people, but that is not going to happen until he’s gone. So in the end, this mission really is about getting rid of Gadhafi.
I realize that there is the military mission and then there’s what we want. And I realize that the military mission isn’t to go bomb his headquarters, wherever he is. But we can’t leave there, the coalition can’t leave there, until Gadhafi is gone, correct?
JONES: That’s correct. I mean, there is a certain sense — there’s a linkage here between the fact that NATO is now involved and we know that the ultimate — the end state is to have regime change in Libya. And how you get there from where we are now, which started out as a humanitarian mission to protect the people, without the partitioning of Libya, without Gadhafi staying in power, for a long period of time, that is the problem. But unfortunately, most people want perfect clarity in a situation where clarity doesn’t really exist yet.
CROWLEY: Well, let me ask you what you thought — we did in the open, sort of a setup. And we had Monday, and the president is saying things going really well. And we stopped him. The next thing we know, Tuesday and Wednesday, Gadhafi is back in full force. And yet by the end of the week, we’re going OK, no more strike missions for the U.S., no more Tomahawk missiles from the ships.
And Congress said wait a minute, this timing seems terrible, because right when he’s back and moving — I mean, was that a mistake? I mean, we understand the politics of U.S. not wanting to be in the lead. But the question is whether the timing was right to say OK now we’re kind of backing off and letting others take the front seat.
JONES: Well, I would just say that what we’re doing here is making sure that our allies also take on their share of responsibilities, which they are. We have destroyed about a third of the tanks in Libya as I understand it. We do have a — an adequate set of rules of engagement to go after these — these heavy weapons that would inflict harm on civilians. We have some 40 ships, allied ships, of which about ten are U.S. The command and control system that NATO has is operating…
CROWLEY: But it didn’t seem weird to you Gadhafi on the move and then us saying, OK, well we’re done with the front seat stuff?
JONES: Well — I mean, air power, we have a big alliance. I mean, air power — the strike missions can be done by a lot of people. The U.S. is still flying as I understand it, about 50 percent of the missions, but they are mostly search and rescue, refueling, reconnaissance.
CROWLEY: The back up sort of stuff.
JONES: The supporting part.
Of course NATO and the West are stuck now in Libya. Don’t expect any political cover from the Arab League or any organization of African states, either. If Gaddafi survives, the West will suffer a huge blow to its prestige, while Gaddafi will be weakened and extremists emboldened. That serves the purposes of the Arab League, especially in regard to Israel and increasing pressure on Egypt to bend towards the will of the Islamists.
Jones has more clarity on the idea of arming the rebels than others still in the administration, but not by much:
CROWLEY: Let me ask you first about arming — the U.S. helping in arming or training — do you think that’s a good idea or bad idea?
JONES: Depends on who we are arming and training.
CROWLEY: So that mission depends on what we find out in the current mission?
JONES: Exactly. Yeah, yeah.
That’s certainly how it will play out, but that’s not how it should have happened. The US had plenty of opportunity to scope out the nature of the rebellion during the weeks before our military intervention; in fact, that process should have begun when rebellions broke out in Libya’s neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt. If we’re conducting a war for regime change without knowing what the actual alternatives will be, it’s entirely possible that we will have made the situation exponentially worse by handing oil fields to our global enemy, an outcome that seems at least reasonably likely now. Sometimes, it seems, you have to intervene in a rebellion to find out what’s in it.