As Libyan Rebels Stall, Obama Faces Impossible Choice

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If he escalates, the U.S. could risk another Afghanistan; if he doesn't, we could be seen as complicit in Qaddafi's victory

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Between 6 a.m. Tuesday and 6 a.m. Wednesday, Libyan time, a period during which U.S. and European forces launched 102 air strikes, the rebel movement there suffered their worst defeats since the campaign of Western intervention began more than a week earlier. After having made it all the to the outskirts of Sirte, Qaddafi's hometown and the furthest west the rebels had advanced, loyalist forces quickly pushed the rebels back to the oil-rich town of Ras Lanouf, then to Brega, which has changed hands several times, and now as far east as Ajdabia, a rebel stronghold and strategic crossroads that Qaddafi retook immediately before the air strikes destroyed his forces there.

For the moment, the rebels appear to be losing. If loyalists take Ajdabia, they will likely continue along the Mediterranean coast to Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital and base of operations. If Benghazi falls, the rebellion may well be defeated. Though Western air strikes succeeded in helping the rebels push westward for nearly a week straight, they have not stopped Qaddafi's counter-offensive, which appears to be rolling steadily east to increasingly likely victory. There are a number of possible explanations for this change of events: loyalist forces are reportedly clustering in smaller numbers, both to evade air strikes and to confuse Western pilots unable to easily differentiate them form small bands of rebels; Qaddafi's forces are better armed and better funded; or perhaps the rebels, running short on supplies and possibly even food, are simply losing steam. Whatever the reason, the rebels are losing both momentum and time.

If the Western air strike campaign continues to fail in stopping Qaddafi's forward march, President Obama, as well as European leaders, will be forced to choose between two similarly unattractive options. Either escalate Western involvement in the civil war, as many are urging him to do, and risk entangling the U.S., and possibly American lives, in a conflict with no clear outcome or end-point. Or decline to escalate, allowing Qaddafi to continue toward a victory, and toward the "house to house" slaughter he so openly promised, in which the U.S. would appear complicit. Obama now owns this war, whether he wants to or not, and that means owning its outcome. On the one hand, a worst-case that could look a great like Afghanistan; on the other, Rwanda.

The calls for Obama to escalate in Libya started coming even before Qaddafi regained the momentum. Leading members of the Senate are calling for the U.S. to begin arming rebels, despite that very same policy having helped foment decades of brutal violence in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been careful to leave that option open, telling the London-based international conference on Libya, "There could be legitimate transfer of arms if a country were to choose to do that." Writing in the Baltimore Sun, U.S. Naval Academy professor Deane-Peter Baker makes the case for the U.S. to fund mercenaries from "private companies" to fight alongside the rebels. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman today became the first major U.S. figure to call for, as he put it, "boots on the ground -- either as military help for the rebels to oust Qaddafi as we want, or as post-Qaddafi peacekeepers and referees between tribes and factions to help with any transition to democracy."

There's a risk of committing ground troops even without intending to. In 1950, President Truman established the Military Assistance Advisory Group to oversee the money and arms he was funneling into the conflict in Vietnam. But what began as a contingent of military advisers gradually but inexorably became something much more. The advisers needed guards, of course, and as the number of advisers grew so did the number of guards. Eventually, North Vietnamese guerrillas began targeting the advisers, and the contingent of U.S. advisers and guards began to look a lot more like a military. By August 1964, when the Gulf of Tonkin incident provoked the U.S. to commit to a full-on ground war against North Vietnam, it was only an escalation of a conflict that had already been ongoing for years.

Obama, wary of escalating a U.S.-Libya conflict that could risk becoming our third war, and possibly a very costly and prolonged war, could very well decide that air strikes, even if they are not enough to guide the rebels to victory, are the limit of U.S. involvement. This path has its own risks. After taking such a public stand against Qaddafi, placing the U.S. firmly on the side of the rebels, any defeat will not only cement Qaddafi's rule but could deeply mar an American image that is already abysmally low in the Middle East and throughout much of the world. Public criticism at home, the year before he will seek reelection, could be the least of Obama's problems. After his crucial, if delayed, support for Egyptian protesters against President Hosni Mubarak positioned the U.S. as a force for Middle Eastern democracy and popular will, after years of U.S. support for the much-loathed status quo, Obama has gained a bit of credibility in a region where his country badly needs it. If Qaddafi's forces roll into Benghazi and begin massacring civilians, as they have done in the past and as Qaddafi and his son Saif have both pledged to do in the future, and if images of that slaughter inevitably make it onto Al Jazeera and CNN and the BBC, then many outraged viewers in the Arab world and beyond will ask, whether fairly or unfairly, why the U.S. was willing to topple Saddam Hussein but not to stop Qaddafi.

Rationally and realistically, Obama cannot be held personally responsible for Qaddafi's forward charge, just as the U.S. is not ultimately responsible for the Libyan civil war. But public opinion is rarely rational or realistic, and the U.S., by virtue of its direct and high-profile involvement -- not to mention Obama's speeches touting that involvement -- now has a very public stake in the outcome of this conflict.

Update (5:38 p.m.): Reuters' Mark Hosenball reports that Obama, within the last two to three weeks, signed a presidential finding authorizing clandestine U.S. support for the rebels. Such support would presumably be carried about by the CIA. However, the finding appears to predate the U.S. and European air strikes campaign. Reuters also today reports that, according to a GOP lawmaker, the Obama administration tells Congress it has not yet decided whether to fund the rebels. So while Obama does not appear to have decided whether or not to take the course of escalation, he has certainly left that path open.


Photo by Larry Downing / Reuters
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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