NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe U.S. Adm. James Stavridis answered questions on the Libyan intervention before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, echoing the refrain voiced in Western capitals of knowing little about the exact nature of the eastern opposition. Though Stavridis labeled the rebel leadership as “responsible men and women” fighting Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, he added that there have been “flickers” of intelligence indicating that elements of al Qaeda and Hezbollah exist among the eastern opposition’s ranks. The question of arming the eastern rebels now, when U.S. military officials have gone on record before Congress with such suspicions of Hezbollah and al Qaeda links, seems politically unpalatable to say the least. Indeed, Stavridis’ testimony came on the same day that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. President Barack Obama demurred on the notion that Washington is on the verge of sending weapons to Benghazi.
Of the three countries most committed to seeing Gadhafi removed from power – the United States, France and the United Kingdom – none have yet to come up with a clear strategy on how to they intend to see this through. All have been steadfast in the refusal to consider sending ground troops to combat Gadhafi’s forces. Obama drove this point home in his Monday night speech when he drew parallels between the road the United States went down in Iraq and the way things should not be done in Libya. Airstrikes alone, however, are ill equipped to achieve this type of mission. While sanctions are made to be broken and while hope exists that continued international pressure on Tripoli would force Gadhafi to eventually step down, as evidenced by Obama’s words on Tuesday, this creates the possibility for a very long wait. Relying on such an eventuality also increases the chance that the coalition, committed to the enforcement of U.N. Resolution 1973, will splinter and potentially leave Washington to pick up the pieces. What the United States really wants out of the Libyan intervention is an opportunity to transfer responsibility for a multilateral conflict to the Europeans.
If regime change without having to insert Western forces is indeed the end goal, and ground troops are the most expedient way to push Gadhafi out in a somewhat timely manner, it would seem that bolstering the rebel forces in the east with better weapons and training is the next logical step. After all, any doubts that rebel fighters are no match for the Libyan army were erased by the events that unfolded along the coastal stretch between Bin Jawad and Sirte on Tuesday. After several days of steadily gaining ground due to a calculated decision by Gadhafi’s troops to withdraw and dig in more defensible positions, opposition forces were forced to beat a hasty and chaotic retreat from the outskirts of the Libyan leader’s hometown. While arms transfers are believed to have been occurring unofficially, courtesy of Qatar and Egypt, they aren’t going to do the job, and it is not quite clear what level of materiel would. (This is to say nothing of the amount of training that would need to go along with any arms shipments to eastern Libya, as the rebels also have proven themselves to be lacking in command and control, communications and logistics capabilities.)
As Gadhafi’s forces pushed the rebels eastward away from Sirte, an international conference on Libya took place in London, where NATO member states and others that have supported the no-fly zone were attempting to come together and speak with one voice on how to proceed. Included at the conference was a delegation from the Libyan rebel leadership, representing the body known as the Transitional National Council (TNC), or, the “responsible men” fighting Gadhafi that Stavridis referenced in his Senate testimony. One of the TNC officials explicitly requested that fighters be supplied with bigger and better weapons to combat Gadhafi’s forces. This request was rebuffed, ostensibly due to restrictions on such military aid by the U.N. resolution. France suggested that there are ways to get around such restrictions, as did the United States, but neither was willing to go on record as saying that they are on the verge of changing their undecided policy on arming the eastern forces.
For the United States, this is a reflection of what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was saying over the weekend as he made the rounds on the Sunday talk show circuit. Intervening in Libya is not part of the Americans’ “vital national interests.” It may be in their interests to remove Gadhafi and have the Europeans demonstrate that they are capable of taking a greater role in joint military operations, but it is not absolutely critical. Washington has a history of arming rebel groups first, and asking questions later. The fact that it has allowed a lack of familiarity with whom, exactly, the TNC represents indicates that Libya, while certainly a high priority, is not on par with other recent crises that have spurred Washington into immediate action. Indeed, the United States was not an early proponent of the no-fly zone, and only came around after repeated insistences by the France and the United Kingdom (who have motivations of their own) gave it an opportunity to put the Obama doctrine of multilateralism and limited U.S. involvement on display.
In his Senate testimony, Stavridis also pointed out that if recent history is to be a guide, then a “foreign stabilization force” would likely be needed in Libya should the rebels ever successfully topple Gadhafi. Stavridis cited the examples of Bosnia and Kosovo as precedents. Such an assessment by NATO’S supreme allied commander in Europe might give American politicians even more pause to arming the rebels than the suggestion that some of its members may have links to al Qaeda and Hezbollah.