Ghosts of Iraq: Why the War Against Libya Remains Leaderless

How European politics, American regret, and the messy nature of revolutions complicate the fight against Qaddafi

drop max.jpg

Since American and European air strikes on Libya began, a number of journalists have asked some variation of the same question: What, exactly, are our ultimate objectives? Stopping leader Muammar Qaddafi's violence against civilians? Splitting the country between the Qaddafi-held west and rebel-dominated east? Or the total and immediate end of Qaddafi's four-decade rule? But there's a second big, unanswered question about Western intervention in Libya that might help explain the first: Who is in charge?

On the fifth straight day of foreign, air- and sea-based attacks against Qaddafi's forces, there is still no one leading the massive Western force. The U.S., as Pentagon officials frequently point out at daily press conferences, is not in charge. NATO, still deadlocked by internal disputes, is not in charge. The United Nations Security Council, which only gave enough authority to enforce a no-fly zone, is not in charge of the now far more aggressive campaign. The Arab League, which withdrew its support within hours of granting it, is certainly not in charge. It would be as if, in June 1944, the allied powers decided to invade Normandy at roughly the same time, but didn't bother to appoint General Eisenhower to command and coordinate the multi-national force.

Journalists trying to answer the question of who is in charge have been reduced, perhaps because no concrete answer yet exists, to speculating as to whether the U.S. might be willing to support France's proposal for a "steering committee" for the war, though it's not even clear who would lead that committee or how it would delegate authority between the Western powers. Not only is no one in charge, no one wants to be, and no one has any idea who to appoint.

There appear to be two primary reasons for the confusion, both of which may also help explain why there's no clear objective. First, the leading Western powers all have different goals for the strikes. The U.S., France, Italy -- to possibly be joined by forces under NATO command -- are all coming to Libya with what look to be very different goals, which means conducting different missions in different ways.

Though American officials stress that the U.S. is not actively or directly seeking Qaddafi's ouster, that's exactly what the primary U.S. goal appears to be, as recent New York Times news analysis shows. President Obama himself has declared that the Libyan despot must go. It's not hard to see why -- even the George W. Bush administration's campaign to engage Qaddafi and liberalize Libya, perhaps Bush's greatest success in the region, left Qaddafi still willing to blackmail the U.S. with loose nuclear materials, as he did in 2009. Given Obama's deep personal commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, he would likely be far more inclined to forcibly remove Qaddafi. But, as Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin reported, Obama was ultimately persuaded by liberal interventionists in the White House who saw an opportunity to "rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward a greater focus on democracy and human rights" in the Middle East. The promises of Obama's 2009 Cairo speech, only half-fulfilled by the administration's crucial but late-game support for protesters in Egypt, are now being delivered in the form of cruise missiles.

France's heavy involvement is, like that of the U.S. and Great Britain, driven in part by a desire to atone for past sins against the Arab region. But France is attempting to make up for something much more recent than the 2003 Iraq invasion. President Nicolas Sarkozy's support for Tunisian dictator Ben Ali was deep, long-held, and consistent right up until the latter's ouster by popular protest. France, long a symbol of colonialist oppression in North Africa, looked once again like the hated imperial power it had formerly been. Now, Sarkozy is trying to champion a much older French identity; that of the 18th and 19th centuries, when revolutionary French ideals and another impish French leader helped spread democracy and liberty. In attacking Qaddafi and helping Libyans "liberate themselves," France has "decided to assume its role, its role before history," said Sarkozy, who could also use a foreign policy victory after months of devastating violence in Francophone North and West Africa and leading up to presidential voting rounds where he is expected to lose by a wide margin.

Italy's concerns in Libya are far more immediate. As the closest European nation to Libya, as well as to Tunisia and Egypt, Italy's economic well-being depends heavily on having a good relationship with North Africa. Italy consumes 32 percent of Libya's oil output and it handles much of the trade between North Africa and the rest of Europe. The Arab uprisings have severely disrupted both the flow of oil and of maritime trade. Italy's economic interest would have probably been best served by there being no intervention at all, thus allowing Qaddafi to quickly defeat the rebels and return to pumping oil. But if there must be war -- and Italy was happy to drag its feet in the early negotiations over intervening -- then Italy's economic interest is for that war to end as decisively and as quickly as possible.

The second probable reason for the confusion over who is leading strikes against Libya is that no Western power wants to find itself leading a third international war in a troubled and complicated Muslim state. Everyone wants to play a supporting role but no one wants to be in charge, which has left the foreign interventionists leaderless, rudderless, and, ultimately, without a clear set of objectives to guide the way. Obama's Cairo speech, by rebuking the Iraq war but promising that the U.S. would seek Arab democratization, put the U.S. in the awkward position of desiring Qaddafi's ouster but unwilling to openly lead the military mission necessary to make that happen. Sarkozy wants France to play the hero in Libya, but fears that, if the intervention drags on and becomes muddied in the dirty business of occupying Tripoli or negotiating with Qaddafi loyalists, France could once again look the colonial power. Italy, which held Libya until 1951, has similar fears. And no country wants to own a long-running, possibly sectarian conflict in Libya the way that the U.S. owns the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps most of all, no Western power wants to lead the intervention because that would be to implicitly lead the war against Qaddafi, and for that war to succeed it must remain led by the Libyan people. Revolutions are far, far more likely to succeed when they're organic, popular, and native to the country being revolutionized. If led by the outside, it becomes regime change, something the U.S. has attempted several times, typically to horrifyingly disastrous results, from the CIA-led coup in Iran in 1951 to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. So the Western powers want to support, rather than lead, the Libyan rebels pushing against Qaddafi. But the rebel leadership is fractured and confused, to the extent that such leadership even exists at all. There is no clear authority to coordinate with; even if there were, it's not clear how adept they would be at commanding a multi-national air and naval force based on three continents. Until the rebels establish a leader who is both legitimate and competent enough for the U.S., Great Britain, France, Italy, and others to willingly hand over their authority, until a Western nation steps into the leadership role, or until a multinational body such as NATO can organize itself into taking charge -- three extremely difficult and unlikely events -- the war will continue without a leader. But, leader or no, it will certainly continue.

Photo by Darren Staples/ Reuters