April 5, 2011

Libya and the abdication of leadership

It has been two and a half weeks since the United States and a coalition began military operations in Libya to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. That resolution authorized all measures to enforce a no-fly zone over the country and protect civilians from the violence in the country. The impetus for that action was the imminent defeat of opposition forces in Benghazi.

First, a comment on the timing of the military action. It was a last minute rescue of the opposition. Had coalition aircraft and missiles not been committed to the battle on March 19, Mu'amar al-Qadhafi's tanks and infantry, supported by artillery and helicopter gunships, would have entered Benghazi and wreaked havoc on the surviving opposition fighters. Additionally, there may have been thousands of casualties among civilians either caught in the crossfire, or deliberately slaughtered by Qadhafi's forces to send a message to those who would oppose his regime.

If America and its allies had not acted on that Saturday, Benghazi could have become Libya's Hamah, and the "Hamah Rules" could have been rewritten as the "Benghazi Rules." I refer to the incident in Syria in 1982 when a group of Islamic fundamentalists attempted to defy the authoritarian government of then-President Hafiz al-Asad (father of the current president). Asad deployed elements of the Syrian army under the command of his ruthless brother Rifa't. Syrian artillery flattened the center of the city and killed upwards of 25,000 people. The Syrian response has become notorious around the world as the Hamah Rules.

Fortunately, the coalition responded on March 19 - and unfortunately the coalition responded on March 19. If there had been decisive American leadership when the rebels were on the move towards Tripoli and a no-fly zone imposed then, I might not be writing this article about the abdication of American leadership. Instead, we might be discussing the possibilities of a post-Qadhafi Libya.

President Obama is to be commended for committing American military forces to the enforcement of the no-fly zone and protection of Libyan civilians. He is not to be commended for taking so long to make the decision. Hundreds, possibly thousands of Libyans died in the interim.

It goes beyond that, however. It appears the President waited for the United Nations resolution and the agreement of European and at least two Arab allies. That in itself is not a bad thing, but it also appeared to be a further abdication of American leadership. Whether the President likes it or not, the United States is a superpower, a superpower with global interests and global commitments. Whether we like it or not, the world looks to us for leadership in times of crises.

I understand the President's reticence to order American forces to attack an Arab or Muslim countries, given our past record in Iraq and Afghanistan, and earlier operations in other places in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Again, in and of itself not a bad thing. Reticence before placing young American men and women in harm's way is a good thing, however, timidity in the face of adversity is not.

This was one case, maybe the only one we'll see for years to come, in which there was Arab sanction for military action. It was the Arab League that called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over a fellow Arab country, an unprecedented action, knowing full well that the enforcement of a no-fly zone would begin with lethal attacks on the Libyan air defense system.

It was almost what some would call a cry for American leadership. Here was the opportunity to protect Libyan civilians, and hopefully achieve another American policy goal, the removal of Mu'amar al-Qadhafi from power, all with Arab League support. Yet the President chose to deliberately downplay the contribution of American armed forces, couching it in terms of "unique capabilities" and support.

The reality of the initial coalition, and the reality of NATO* that is now in charge of the operation, is that without the United States military, it does not function. Without the American contribution, there would have been only an ineffectual operation. In addition to massive firepower delivered by American aircraft and missiles, the percentage of aerial refueling, airborne command and control, reconnaissance, intelligence and surveillance was overwhelmingly American.

If the intent of downplaying the American role was to convince the Arab nations that this was not another case of the United States trying to interfere in the Middle East, it failed. The Arabs know who is shouldering the load. In this case, we should be claiming that role. It also appeared that the President could not wait to turn command and control of the operation over to NATO, although much of the effort and almost all of the support would still be done by American forces.

Some gratuitous advice:

- Mr. Obama, as you often remind us, you are the President of the United States of America. You are the Commander in Chief of the most powerful military force on the planet. The American people have spent trillions of dollars and invested their most valuable resource, their sons and daughters, to provide you that capability.

- To many people, as President, you are the leader of the free world. They look to you for leadership in these types of crisis. It may not be what you had in mind when you decided to run for the office, but we all play the cards we are dealt. You should not abdicate your leadership role. The rest of the world, and in this case, the Arab world, is counting on you.

- Get back in the fight. NATO cannot do this with the United States sitting in the sidelines "in case they are needed." They are needed. One only need look at the setbacks handed to the Libyan opposition since you decided to sit it out. Only the American armed forces have the specialized and advanced weapons systems to get this done.

- You are the President, you are the Commander in Chief. Act like it.

* NATO is the acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, not as those of us unfortunate as having had to deal with them referred to them - Not After Two O'clock.