The Shores of Tripoli 2.

In an approach that would be repeated in Syria at the time of the chemical weapons “red line” incident, the President first decided for intervention and then asked his military advisers what was possible. As would be the case later, he didn’t like what he heard. The eastern Libyan city of Benghazi formed the heart of the resistance to Qaddafi. His troops were advancing on the city, driving people before them. A no-fly zone wouldn’t do any good because Qaddafi possessed a huge advantage in conventional arms. Qaddafi “would have lined up the tanks and just gone after folks,” in the later words of then then-CIA director David Petraeus. This forced the President to seek a mandate from the UN for more than a mere no-fly zone.

The big rock in the middle of the road here was the Russians. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin opposed to American interventionism.[1] At first, the Russians opposed even a no-fly zone. Clinton consulted with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. She assured Lavrov that the US didn’t want another war in the Middle East. “Doesn’t mean that you won’t get one,” he replied laconically. Still, for reasons that the NYT story artfully elides,[2] the Russians agreed not to veto a UN resolution allowing “all necessary means” to protect civilians. The resolution carried on 17 March 2011.

On 19 March 2011 Secretary Clinton was in Paris to co-ordinate strategy with French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron.[3] Here Sarkozy blind-sided her by saying that French jets were already airborne for strikes, but that he would recall them if she wanted. Although this meant that the Americans would not control the pace of the initial campaign, Clinton declined to ask for the recall of the attacks.[4]

President Obama claimed that he had no intention of engaging in regime-change. On 22 March 2011, Secretary Clinton publically stated that the purpose of the mission did not include tossing Qaddafi out on his ear. The president ordered the Defense Department to prevent any massacres, and then to pass the task to the French and the British after ten days. Within three days, American forces had suppressed Libyan air defenses and halted the advance on Benghazi. However, the anti-Qaddafi uprising then spread to other areas. These uprisings were rooted in tribal or regional or religious identities long suppressed by Qaddafi. Their success might tear the country apart over the long run. The debate among national security officials turned to questions that might well have been considered before intervention. Was the “protection” mission to extend throughout Libya? Could Libyans be protected without evicting Qaddafi? What kind of government would replace him?

Events moved ahead of debate. By April 2011, the US had deployed drones to strike Qaddafi loyalist targets and inserted CIA officers to provide rebel commanders with combat intelligence. Increasingly, it became apparent that the Qaddafi regime would be destroyed, regardless of what the mandate from the UN authorized. Even so, the rebel offensive couldn’t move beyond Brega, on the coast road to Tripoli, where Qaddafi’s initial offensive had stalled months before.

In Washington, the scales began to fall from the eyes of the interventionists. Many in Congress were angry with President Obama’s contention that the War Powers Act did not apply because Americans were killing foreigners, but no Americans were being killed by foreigners. The Russians claimed that they had not approved regime change. The Arab League said the same.

[1] There is a report that Putin suffered a stroke in the womb before he was born. His obsession with physical attainments, from his judo matches to his riding a horse bareback to his hunting tigers are expressions of a heroic will to master his environment. It shows up in his politics and diplomacy. Or lack of diplomacy.

[2] See: “Obama versus Putin.”

[3] Why was the Secretary of State, rather than the Secretary of Defense, coordinating military plans with allies?

[4] Did she vote for the attack on Iraq in 2003 because she didn’t want to be labeled a “dove” when she ran for President in 2008? It’s always difficult reading the crystal ball, but Obama won as a “dove” in 2008.

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