Libya Intervention Looks Hazy in Hindsight

Libya: A Retrospective; Palin Puzzle Helps Romney Fend Off Perry

Libya Intervention Looks Hazy in Hindsight

"Trying to disarm the brigades after Gaddafi falls will be much harder than now. If the [Libyan National Transitional Council] does not move on this, it will face a large problem."

-- Professor Salah Sanussi of Garyunis University in Benghazi, Libya talking to Time magazine about rebel fighters.

Six months and $1 billion later, the U.S. intervention in the Libyan civil war is entering a new phase. American and allied forces are still flying air strikes, but the Obama administration says that the “kinetic” portion of the mission is drawing quickly to a close and that strongman Col. Muammar Qaddafi will soon be gone.

NATO estimates that at least 30,000 Libyans have died thus far in the bitter conflict, which began when rival tribes in the eastern part of the nation staged a revolt against Qaddafi and his tribe. The Qaddafi clan has been in charge for 40 years, ever since they toppled the old strongman, who was a potentate of those eastern tribes now in revolt.

The eastern tribesmen were joined by Islamists, who resent Qaddafi’s effort to exterminate them. Qaddafi has long worked to purge his country of Muslim radicals, speaking about the dangers of Al Qaeda and radical fundamentalism. This stems from the dictator’s abiding paranoia about a revolution just such as this one. That paranoia, though, put Qaddafi on good terms with the U.S. and the West for most of the past six years.

At the time the eastern tribes and Islamists rose up, Western leaders were infatuated with the idea of what was then called the Arab Spring, a flash-mob style series of revolts across the Middle East. In the winter and spring of this year the movement was widely seen as a fulcrum point in history on par with the fall of the Soviet Union. European and American leaders pushed for the Libya intervention on the grounds that the West would be “on the right side of history.”

But, with Egypt looking increasingly unstable and unfriendly, Iran making the most of the moment and increased peril for U.S. allies in Riyadh and Jerusalem, Power Play doesn’t hear much talk about the Arab Spring anymore.

The timing of the Libyan rebels was great in that way. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has killed many thousands of his own subjects with months of tank attacks and even naval bombardments. He’s an Iranian ally whose Shiite clan oppresses a moderate Sunni majority, but he has only just now been socked with sanctions and been called upon to step down. Qaddafi didn’t come close to Assad’s level of violence against his own people, had voluntarily surrendered his nuclear program and was doing business with Western governments, but he ended up with smart bombs zipping through his tent flaps.

But it was February and Westerners were very big on the idea of transformative, democratic change in the Middle East and were then willing to provide a little push in Libya. Despite the warnings of his generals, President Obama signed on to the mission being pushed by European leaders and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Libyan rebels wouldn’t have gotten the same boost today, but Western liberals were all still jazzed about Tahrir Square back then.

Since Obama was using the Bush doctrine of preemption, designed to stop terrorist attacks, and applying it to civilian atrocities, the president was not willing to seek Congressional authorization for the air raids. Rather than being refused, Obama went ahead without authorization. But because he was acting unilaterally, Obama was obliged to severely circumscribe American military options and rely on under-equipped European armies for much of the conflict. This was the birth of the now infamous “leading from behind” quote offered by an unnamed Obama advisor to reporters.

Without congressional backing and toting the lowest public support on record for the start of an American military mission, Obama required that the rules of engagement be dictated by a U.N. resolution that called for strikes only to defend the citizenry. This prompted some interesting verbal gymnastics in which it was explained that bombing runs that killed civilians were actually protecting civilians because they would eventually be killed by Qaddafi he ever got a free hand again.

Since the strategy was limited by the desire to stay within the president’s legal team’s interpretation of the War Powers Resolution, the ragtag rebels, beset by divisions between the jihadis and the tribal military leaders, stalled. Many advocates of intervention said that this was only because Westerners waited more than a month to eventually pitch in. An earlier strike, they said, would have worked better.

But the rebels have not succeeded in uniting the nation around their cause. Instead, it seems that other rebellions have begun autonomously of the provisional government set up in Misrata by the eastern tribes and Islamists and led by a former University of Pittsburgh professor. There’s no indication that the rebels ever had a base of support beyond their ideologically and geographically narrow sphere.

But last month, the tribes in the mountains in the middle of the country tore a hole in Qaddafi’s flank. Then the Tripolitans joined the fun, leaving only Qaddafi’s ancestral home of Brega in government hands. The decision by the Tripolitans and the mountain folks to line up against Qaddafi marked the end of his ability to wield power effectively.

The Europeans are watching with great anxiety. There are already more than 1 million refugees from the conflict (quite a lot for a nation of 6.5 million people) and they are mostly trying to get to Italy and points north. The Europeans are in the midst of a currency failure and dealing with widespread rioting, so refugees are not a welcome sight.

Without a controlling authority or any respected civic institutions, the situation in Libya promises to get even rockier. Will the country pull a Biden and divide into three? Will a new humanitarian crisis emerge if the already suffering citizens can’t get food? Will the already lawless south turn into the new preferred hideout for terrorists in training? Will Qaddafi’s tribesmen turn into terrorists themselves?

Rich in oil and sitting at Europe’s doorstep, the answers to these questions promise to be very consequential for many months to come.

Palin Speculation Aids Romney

“I believe that she will run. I can’t see her sitting this election out.”

-- Peter Singleton, one of the organizers of the Sept. 3 Iowa Tea Party event with headline speaker Sarah Palin, telling National Review that the former Alaska governor will give a “major, major speech.”

The longer that the Republican field remains “fluid,” the better it is for frontrunner Mitt Romney.

Mounting speculation about the potential presidential runs by Sarah Palin, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others has become the talk of the Republican ‘in’ crowd of late. Will-they-or-won’t-they guessing games are the topic du jour.

This is a help to Romney, whose long-term strategy for the Republican nomination relies on his well-funded, well-organized campaign being the last one standing at the end of a long and factious process. What Romney needs to avoid is what is happening now with Rick Perry: the rise of an opponent who can unite the right against him and deny Romney the nomination.

There is no one in the field, as currently constituted, who can prevent Perry from doing just that, so the more discussion about potential conservative favorites who might just jump in, the better it is for Romney.

If Palin were to run, it would put a serious dent in Perry’s fender since many conservative Republicans would feel honor bound to rally to the former Alaska governor, even if it helped the more moderate Romney. But even if she doesn’t decide to run, her long shadows help Romney by keeping Tea Partiers and others on the right from settling on Perry.

Romney wants a long campaign and needs to avoid a quick knockout now by the Texan.