The war in Libya is bad and getting worse. Muammar Qaddafi is entrenched, rebel-held areas are under withering bombardment and the NATO-led coalition is escalating the war by putting military advisers on the ground and targeting Qaddafi’s office and residential compound. Now President Obama faces yet another decision: he’s under pressure from hawks and neoconservatives to go all-in.
On Sunday, Senator Lindsey Graham—who’s also called for an attack on Iran—said: “My recommendation to NATO and the administration is to cut the head of the snake off, go to Tripoli, start bombing Qaddafi’s inner circle, their compounds, their military headquarters in Tripoli.”
Writing in the New York Times, General James. M. Dubik of the Institute for the Study of War, demands that Obama “finish the job.” He writes: “So far, we have chosen an instrument—airstrikes—that is powerful but cannot attain our humanitarian or strategic aims by itself. The charade is over: America has intervened in a civil war with the de facto aim of regime change in Libya. Washington must now accept that decision and face its consequences.” His suggestion is to put American troops (“advisers”) and “combat air controllers” on the ground in Libya. And he’s in it for the long haul, “if Colonel Qaddafi falls, the United States and NATO will have a responsibility to help shape the postwar order, including providing security to prevent a liberated Libya from sinking into chaos.”
Over at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Anthony Cordesman, a noted hawk and conservative realist, calls the US intervention by air in Libya a “farce” that is “likely to fail.” His analysis:
“It has become all too clear that gambling on Qaddafi caving in has created a far more serious humanitarian crisis for the Libyan people than would ever have occurred if the Coalition had acted decisively from the start and had directly attacked Qaddafi, his centers of power, and the military forces loyal to him. The humanitarian cost of humanitarian restraint is all too clear—hundreds of Libyan and foreign workers have been killed, thousands injured, thousands more arrested and sometimes tortured, and hundreds of thousands lack jobs, security, and safe conditions of life.”
Obama must go for broke, argues Cordesman, regardless of “collateral damage.”
“France, Britain, the US and other participating members of the Coalition need to shift to the kind of bombing campaign that targets and hunts down Qaddafi’s military and security forces in their bases and as they move—as long before they engage rebel forces as possible," he said. "Qaddafi, his extended family, and his key supporters need to be targeted for their attacks on Libyan civilians, even if they are collocated in civilian areas. They need to be confronted with the choice between exile or death, and bombing needs to be intense enough so it is clear to them that they must make a choice as soon as possible.
“This kind of operation cannot be ‘surgical’—if ‘surgical’ now means minimizing bloodshed regardless of whether the patient dies. Hard, and sometimes brutal, choices need to be made between limited civilian casualties and collateral damage during the decisive use of force and an open-ended war of attrition that will produce far higher cumulative civilian casualties and collateral damage.”
The hawks may be wrong about the stalemate: it’s possible that, sooner or later, Qaddafi will fall—either be overthrown by his inner circle or simply decide to call it quits. That’s clearly what Obama is counting on. But even that’s iffy. Far more likely is a prolonged war of attrition, in which thousands will die on both sides. Those, including “humanitarian interventionists” who are congratulating themselves over the coalition’s success in rescuing Benghazi from Qaddafi’s forces at the start of the NATO campaign, ought to be counting the dead on both sides now.