In the past few weeks, Qaddafi’s army has been driving east across the Libyan Desert, rolling up the democratic forces who bravely rose up in rebellion against him, the same way Rommel drove the British out of Libya almost exactly 70 years ago.
The parallels between the campaigns of March-April 1941 and March-April 2011 are dramatic. The two armies swept east over exactly the same territory from Tripoli in the west to Benghazi in the east. In both campaigns, the great port of Benghazi was the ultimate prize.
In both campaigns the military forces driving east were miniscule and hugely outnumbered on paper by the impressive (on paper) troops arrayed against them.
Unlike Saddam Hussein in Iraq who created the fourth largest army in the world before 1991, Qaddafi never built up the Libyan army as a major force. With only 8 million people in Libya, he didn’t have the numbers to start with. And he distrusted the potential of any powerful, well-equipped army and officer corps to stage any coup against him the way he toppled old King Idris to seize power back in 1969.
The famed "Afrika Korps" of Rommel was also far smaller than its legendary reputation has made it seem. Rommel entered Africa with only a single armored corps in early 1941. But his troops were superbly professional. They had a relatively small number of tanks but handled them with the best expertise in the world and they rolled up the complacent, overextended, badly equipped British army they encountered. In a few weeks, they had driven the British all the way back to Benghazi, just as Qaddafi has done.
Qaddafi’s success has taken the slow-moving ponderous bureaucracy of the Obama administration by surprise too. At first, they complacently thought the rebels would be able to quickly topple Qaddafi from power as happened already this year to President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali of Tripoli to the west of Libya and to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to the east.
This would have been the ideal outcome for Obama, the most passive American president since Herbert Hoover was paralyzed by the Great Depression. His record of supine helplessness in the face of every disaster from the democratic protests in Iran in July 2009 to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico makes Jimmy Carter look like General Patton.
But Qaddafi, the shrewd, and not at all mad or incompetent, leader of his country for 42 years, was made of far sterner stuff than Ben-Ali or Mubarak. He stood his ground, rallied his military forces and launched them decisively and ruthlessly at the brave, but almost unequipped rebels.
First Obama dithered as he always does for precious weeks, then he finally approved a bombing campaign supposedly simply to prevent the Libyan air force from killing innocent civilians.
In any war, to use a phrase first popularized in 1917, the aim is to get their firstest with the mostest. Qaddafi, after 42 years in power, understood that well. Commander-in-Chief Obama, who never had any work experience beyond a few months as a youthful community organizer in Chicago, never had a clue.
Obama, as a military and historical ignoramus, also didn’t realize, that air support campaigns, especially hedged in by hundreds of caveats from dozens of liberal administration lawyers, didn’t have a chance of stopping a determined army unless there were well trained forces on the ground to hold the line.
The air support campaign he approved was too little, too late – exactly the kind of muddled, incoherent botched compromise that The One always falls back on when he doesn’t have a clue what to do about anything.
Rommel had the same advantage. Gen. Archibald Wavell, Britain’s top commander in the Middle East was universally loved -- always a bad sign in a combat general. He was so passive that even Obama looks decisive in comparison.
Eventually, Churchill replaced him with a fighting commander, though also still pretty clueless -- Gen. Claude Auchinleck. Rommel had a jolly year and a half making a fool of Auchinleck and the very poor generals he appointed up and down the Libyan Desert before Churchill finally appointed a commander who could stand up to Rommel and beat him -- the famous Bernard Montgomery.
Obama, no Churchill to put it mildly, has shown no backbone or courage capable of putting any troops on the ground to stop Qaddafi rolling up the democratic resistance to him. He has first class, experienced combat commanders he could appoint, most notably Gen. David Petraeus and even retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But he isn’t going to do it or give them the troops they would need. You can take that to the bank.
Montgomery knew that the only way to get rid of Rommel was to smash the Afrika Korps once and for all, which he did at the Battle of El Alamein in November 1942 His victory there was praised by Churchill as “The Hinge of Fate” that decisively turned the tide of World War II.
It owed a great deal to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt too: FDR, with a courage and decisiveness that Obama clearly has shown no interest in emulating, had sent Britain’s Eighth Army in Egypt 300 new Sherman tanks – armored units far superior to anything the British had previously had – and they played a decisive role in crushing Rommel.
FDR and Churchill both understood that, in the end, Rommel’s army could only be stopped by ground forces numerous and well-equipped enough to beat them. Without that commitment from Obama to put forces on the ground to stop Qaddafi, the Libyan leader’s eventual victory is assured. It’s also a safe bet that scores of thousands of innocent people in Libya who dared to rise up against him will be slaughtered in savage reprisals.
Qaddafi, crazy like a fox, has emulated the success of the famous Desert Fox 70 years ago. Obama, no Churchill, has made Jimmy Carter look commanding as a warlord by comparison. If a rabbit ever attacked Obama the way one famously once assaulted Carter, the president wouldn’t stand a chance.
Montgomery wasn’t the buffoon Americans raised on the movie “Patton” have generally assumed him to be. The great American military historian John Mosier gives Monty his full due in his recent excellent book “The Blitzkrieg Myth.” It took a Montgomery to stop a Rommel.
America thankfully still doesn’t lack for Montgomery’s. We had Gens. Colin Powell and Norman Schwartzkopf in the 1991 Gulf War and 20 years on we have Gen. Petraeus today. But it takes a Churchill not just to appoint a Petraeus – on paper Obama did that in Afghanistan – but also, (to use another famous Churchillian phrase) to give him the tools he needs to finish the job. Barack Obama is no Winston Churchill. And Muammar Qaddafi, today’s Libyan fox, knows it.
Martin Sieff is former Managing Editor, International Affairs of United Press International. He is the author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East.”