After three days of on-and-off airstrikes on Libyan targets, the United States and European nations uniting in military actions against Moammar Gadhafi’s repressive rule are apparently confused about their immediate goal. A cruise missile attack on Gadhafi’s residential compound late Sunday exposed a lack of strategic coordination.
The missile that flattened an administrative building in Gadhafi’s residential compound in Tripoli, only about 50 meters from the tent where the Libyan ruler meets his guests, is likely to be one of the 120 Tomahawks fired from U.S. warships and British submarines in the Mediterranean. As Pentagon denied targeting the residence or Gadhafi himself, British forces were fingered.
British newspapers quoted U.K. Defense Secretary Liam Fox as having admitted the Libyan dictator was “a legitimate assassination target.” He said he would sanction a bunker-buster attack on Gadhafi’s residence. His U.S. counterpart, Robert Gates, on the other hand, remarked that it would be “unwise” for coalition forces to try to kill the Libyan dictator.
U.S. President Obama, who championed the “Jasmine Revolution” as the Arabic pro-democracy movements spread from Tunisia to Egypt, now makes clear that Operation Odyssey Dawn is a limited military action, unlike the mission eight years ago to remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq. According to Gates, Washington will not play a preeminent role but will have other coalition members lead the current military campaign.
It is understandable that Obama is extremely cautious about getting involved in a third war in an Islamic state after Afghanistan and Iraq. However, there is the ethical problem of leaving the Libyan people in a protracted civil war by limiting the U.S. intervention to aerial support for the rebel forces, which are no match for Gadhafi’s heavily armed troops.
The U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 set up the goal of protecting civilians from violence used by a dictatorial regime to suppress the popular pro-democracy uprising. It imposed a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace and asked member states to take “all necessary measures” to implement the flight ban on Gadhafi forces. Whoever drafted the resolution should have known that aerial support alone could not put an end to the conflict and that protracted battles would mean massive bloodshed.
As we review the developments over the past month, Western powers had expected that the Libyan people would be able to overthrow Gadhafi with the help of military elements joining the popular uprising, as in Tunisia and Egypt. But Gadhafi is different from Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak; he is shrewder, and cold-blooded enough to order his air force to slaughter civilian protesters.
The international community devised the no-fly zone as a minimum military action to help turn the tide and pave the way for the rebels to advance to Tripoli. However, in actual operations, the coalition forces have exposed considerable confusion about the objective of their mission and in choosing the targets for strikes. Gadhafi’s residence was bombed, but there was no consensus on whether the dictator should be a target.
Coalition parties should promptly and precisely define their goal and clear differences about their mission. They need to confirm that “protection of civilians” is rather a euphemism for giving the Libyan people enough muscle to take charge of the situation and finally free themselves from the yoke of dictatorship. Without a strategic plan for effective joint operations, the no-fly zone will turn into a scene of multinational aerial demonstrations. Gadhafi will then return to his repaired residence and take reprisals on defeated insurgents.