As Libyan Rebels Stall, Obama Faces Impossible Choice

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."

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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