As a show of strength, the latest from the US on the military mission in Libya falls a wee bit short of convincing. Yesterday, NATO finally accepted operational command of Odyssey Dawn, the air war against Moammar Gaddafi’s armed forces that have not yet stopped the dictator from pushing the rebels into panicked retreats. Today, the US went further and said it would stop flying sorties over Libya after today — unless NATO requested more:
Libyan rebels called for a cease- fire as forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi drove them back for a third day after sandstorms and clouds hindered NATO air strikes and the U.S. said it’s withdrawing all warplanes.
Qaddafi’s fighters must retreat from cities and nearby areas for any cease-fire deal, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel Interim National Council, said in a news conference televised today from their stronghold of Benghazi. He said rebel demands for freedoms must also be met. There was no immediate response to the offer from Qaddafi officials.
The rebels’ move comes one day after Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. jets won’t be flying with NATO forces over Libya after April 2. Mullen said planes would be made available only if requested by NATO. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress the U.S. will “significantly ramp down our commitment” to Libya except for electronic warfare, aerial refueling and surveillance.
Rebels have retreated as Qaddafi’s troops regain the initiative after almost two weeks of allied air strikes against them. This week’s recapture of the oil port Ras Lanuf by Qaddafi forces underscored the military weakness of his opponents. Intensive fighting continues around another oil port, Brega, Sky News television reported, adding that rebel and government lines are keeping out of range of each other’s weapons and are 10 to 20 kilometers (16 to 32 miles) apart.
John McCain warns about learning a “bitter lesson” from defeat here, but it almost seems as though we’re already predicting it. Success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan, and it looks like we’re about to dispute the paternity for Odyssey Dawn.
The demand for a cease-fire on the part of the rebels will certainly go unheeded by Gaddafi, who finally has the upper hand across the board. We’re belatedly discovering that the rebellion more closely resembles an insurgency that is completely unsuited to fight against a trained, professional military. The only hope this had of succeeding was if it triggered massive defections within the military to oppose Gaddafi, and the window for that closed when Gaddafi broke out of Tripoli weeks ago.
Besides, this declaration sounds more aimed at PR and spin than anything else. US warplanes are almost certainly going nowhere. The White House wants to put an arm’s length between the results in Libya and the President, and the best way to do that is to dump the whole problem on NATO. Given the amount of resources at NATO’s disposal for the mission without the US, expect the requests for American sorties to arrive as early as tonight. The only difference will be that Obama can now hang the failure to topple Gaddafi on NATO rather than shouldering the blame himself, or at least he thinks he can.