A recent exchange between intrepid reader Bill F. and myself reminded me of our other war. You know, the one that has most vanished from the front pages. Here is a Washington post article I had to search to find:
BENGHAZI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi's forces rocketed the main fuel depot in Misrata on Saturday, intensifying a two-month siege on the rebel-held city that has claimed many civilian lives and prompted warnings of a humanitarian crisis.
Government forces sent Grad rockets slamming into the depot, which contains vital stores of fuel for cars, trucks, ships and generators powering hospitals and other key sites in a city left darkened by electricity cuts, residents said.
There are three plausible outcomes of U.S., excuse me, NATO policy in Libya. One is that the various attempts by NATO nations to kill Gaddafi and/or weaken his regime succeed and the rebels win. Right now that seems the least likely of the three.
The second outcome would be that the rebellion collapses in spite of all NATO efforts, and Gaddafi restores his regime over all his territory. That is by no means certain, but it is looking more likely.
The third outcome would be that the constant armed conflict fizzles out and gives way to a stalemate sustained by the permanent protection of the rebel held areas by NATO airpower. I cannot judge the likelihood of that. It remains unclear whether the rebels can sustain themselves even in the absence of a final push by the regime. I only note that, if I am right about the slim chances for number one, number three is the only alternative to a Gaddafi victory.
What strikes me now is that we have seen all this before. Contrary to what Bill and many others have said, George W. Bush (43) did not "start" a war in Iraq. The U.S. and its allies were at war with Iraq for twelve years after George H. W. Bush (41) pushed Saddam out of Kuwait. We maintained no-fly zones over Northern and Southern Iraq and occasionally dropped a few bombs and launched a few missiles. That is war, plain and simple.
Largely by inattention, President Clinton allowed the Iraq war to settle into exactly the kind of stalemate contemplated in Libya Outcome 3 above. One of the benefits of that war is that the Kurds were able to build a largely autonomous regime in the North of Iraq, while the Shiites in the South were afforded similar protection. That put us in the position that we could not remove our protection without allowing Saddam to do what Saddam would do to those populations. What Bush 41 did, for better or worse, was not to start a war but to end one.
Unfortunately, Bush 43's invasion of Iraq foreclosed any public deliberation on the policy we were actually pursuing before the invasion. The question "should we have invaded?" allowed everyone to escape the question "what should we have done about the war we were already in?" I think Bush takes the lion's share of responsibility for this in making the case for the invasion. But President Clinton, both parties in Congress, and the Press deserve their share.
Had we faced that question back then, we might not be in the same situation now. Maybe the Gaddafi regime will collapse. It just doesn't look like that right now. A Gaddafi victory would at least put us and the rebels out of our collective misery, though in a less dire sense in our case than theirs. That would also be a very embarrassing defeat for the U.S. and the rest of NATO. We would have succeeded only in prolonging the violence.
That leaves option 3. The best we could hope for is a mostly quiet, indefinite stalemate. Of course, the situations are only roughly analogous. Recent reports suggest that rebel control is very limited. We have mostly handed over the air campaign to our European allies, and they seem to lack enough spare parts to keep their planes in the air. It is very unclear whether the Europeans will be able to sustain a no-fly zone for very long.
It is easy enough to blame President Obama for this situation but it's only fair to say that in this, as in almost all his foreign policy making, he is only falling into established patterns. Blaming Obama, like blaming Bush, can be a lot of fun depending on your political orientation. It can also excuse you from doing what you most need to do in foreign policy: consider the options available. Of course, other options would become available if this or some future President decides to change the rules.
Ps. We really need to convene an international council to decide how to spell Gaddafi, or is it Gadhafi, or Kadafi?