The June 3, 2011 vote in the US House of Representatives, (268-145), demanding that President Obama explain his policy towards the Civil War in Libya, embarrassed the administration, but did little to clarify NATO or US political and military strategy.
Getting rid of Gaddafi and his regime is certainly a worthwhile goal. He has the blood of hundreds of Americans, British and French civilians on his hands, not to mention his responsibility for the deaths of many thousands of Libyans and Africans.
There may be good reasons for the US and its allies to be vague and ambiguous about their policy, but so far NATO's intervention has been too feeble, too slow and too disjointed to have even the appearance of a rational strategy. A strategy worthy of the name would match reasonable goals with available resources and a realistic time frame.
The history of foreign intervention in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) makes a interesting contrast to what is going on today in Libya. As in Spain there are deep historical, political, regional and social reasons why this war broke out. Naturally there are differences, but from the point of view of the intervenors these are not as important as the strategic similarities.
The outcome of the Spanish Civil War was not determined by the Spanish Republicans nor by the Spanish Nationalist rebels, but by those nations that chose to intervene and by those that chose not to. The German Nazis and the Italian Fascists gave more and better support to the Nationalists, who were winning, than the Russian Communists did to the Republicans, who lost. The Nationalists may have had more professional military leadership, but without German and Italian logistic support, they would have been defeated.
The International Community of that time was made to look silly when Mussolini's Italy was given a respected seat on the "Non-Intervention Committee," set up by Britain and France to guide their policy of 'Non-Intervention," while at the same time, Italy was sending tens of thousands of fighting men and tons of weapons to Spain, and was even launching bombing raids on Barcelona.
Like the Spanish Republicans, the Libyan rebels have few professional military officers on their side. For the first few weeks their forces were mostly composed of enthusiastic militias with few weapons and virtually no training. The NATO air forces were able to prevent these rebels from being destroyed by Gaddafi's forces, whose professionalism was hardly greater than that of the rebels. But in this type of conflict, a force with minimal training is better than a force with no training whatsoever. The rebels are now beginning to prepare and organize their forces. It will be weeks or months before we see if the results of this preparation will make a difference.
Unlike the war in Spain the foreign states that are intervening are mostly democracies and thus subject to political pressure both for and against their actions -- as was seen in the vote in the US House of Representatives, demanding that President Obama explain his policy and justify it under U.S. law. The leaders in Britain France and the US have not done a very good job explaining why their intervention against Gaddafi is in the interests of their people. The polls in the US, France and Britain consistently show little support for the operation against the Gaddafi regime.
In the 1930s, the German, Italian and Russian dictators were only limited in their actions by economic and logistical factors.
They had just a small number of tanks, guns, planes and men they could afford to send to Spain.The dictators did not have to worry about parliamentary opposition or constitutional limits. The British who led the "Non-Intervention Committee" -- and who forced the French to stop providing even limited help to the Republicans -- were determined to avoid entangling themselves in Spain. By acts of omission as well as by its futile diplomacy of sending envoys to Mussolini in Rome and Hitler in Berlin, as well as to the League of Nations in Geneva, in an attempt to isolate the combatants, Britain only succeeded in making itself look weak
The nations that intervened in the Spanish war had a clear idea of what they ultimately wanted: they wanted their side to win. The Nazis and the Fascists wanted the Nationalists to win, and the Communists wanted the Republicans to win. Nations that did not intervene lacked any sort of strategy other than to keep their options open.
Today's intervening nations have had at least some success. Using air power, they stopped Gaddafi's forces from taking the rebel capital of Benghazi; and they seem to have broken the government's siege of the coastal town of Misurata. French and British fighter bombers have carried out a series of attacks on Gaddafi's supply bases and on his headquarters that have without doubt limited his ability to carry on a long term war.
For the Libyan dictator and his supporters, who seem to include Algeria and Venezuela, that may not matter. What does matter is staying in power and outlasting the NATO coalition. As long as his US and European enemies' military and political goals are limited by UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which only authorizes action to protect civilians, Gaddafi must figure that he can wait until pressure builds on the Americans and Europeans, and they agree to negotiate or even simply disengage. He knows that next year there are elections coming in both the US and France. Gaddafi expects that neither Obama nor Sarkozy will want to face the voters with a small, nasty, unresolved war in North Africa.
Today in Libya, the nations that have declined to intervene may not have a clear strategy,but
doing nothing is more of a strategy than what NATO is now doing: by doing nothing, they are sending a signal that a tyrant like Gaddafi can do what he likes to his own people.
Publicly at least, the intervening nations evidently have no realistic concept of what outcome they want. They may want to get rid of Gaddafi, but they are unwilling to commit themselves unequivocally to that goal or to supply the Benghazi-based rebels with enough military and economic support to win quickly.
At some point in the next few months the Rebels will probably try to launch a major offensive against the capital city of Tripoli. When that moment comes, NATO will have to decide if it wants to go "all out" in support of the rebels, or whether it will stick to the letter of the UN resolution. One hopes that by then the leaders of the intervention will have made up their minds that they want the side they have been supporting to gain a decisive victory, to win.