Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | February 24, 2011

Gates on Libya: Not Making Sense

I had a hard time getting past the first sentence of this:

Defense secretary Robert Gates says the United States has not had discussions with its NATO partners about how to handle the unfolding crisis in Libya, and he believes that the United States could not quickly enforce a no-fly zone in the country to keep military jets from shooting on the citizens they’re meant to protect.

Regarding the second clause of the sentence, I would say there are valid and understandable considerations, even if I would have put the matter in different terms.  More on that in a moment.

The first part of the statement cannot be accounted for in any positive way.  Libya sits 300-some miles across the water from NATO member Italy, which is already scrambling to deal with a massive influx of refugees from North Africa.  The rapidly failing state keeps ejecting random military weapon systems – pilots defecting with Mirage F-1 fighters, at least one warship – while its insane dictator, along with bombing his own people, is threatening to destroy the Libyan oilfields, whose output makes the nation OPEC’s tenth largest producer.  Crude futures have been climbing for days.  Egypt has now moved troops to her border with Libya.

Moreover, the alarming fact is that we have even less of an idea what might happen in Libya if Qaddafi is killed – or otherwise relieved of his duties – than we have of what the future holds for neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.  This is the very definition of a NATO security issue.

And yet we haven’t talked to NATO about how to respond to this situation?  Seriously?  It’s not like we don’t have constant contact with our NATO allies through the NATO Council in Belgium and multiple allied commands. I’m not sure I see how we could avoid talking to NATO about Libya.  It would have been cost-free for Secretary Gates to say we had done so, even if he had no specific conclusions or plans to report.  It simply makes no sense to convey to a group of opinion writers the truly bizarre message that there has been no consultation.

At any rate, regarding the second clause of the sentence, it’s true that establishing a no-fly zone (NFZ) would not be as easy as it sounds.  For one thing, it’s not clear that Italy would agree to host the air forces that would be required.  Italy – Libya’s last colonial master and closest European partner – has been cagey about condemning Qaddafi.  Italy has a key undersea natural gas line with Libya, and hasn’t wanted to provoke any action against it.  We could waste time deploring Italy for this, but it’s a fact on the ground, and could be an obstacle to setting up a no-fly zone.

Gates is right that the speed with which events are moving militates against comprehensive planning.  By the time we got an NFZ set up, we might not need it anymore.  I have thought the same thing in the last couple of days, as I imagine most people with experience of military air operations have.

That said, however, it wouldn’t have taken as long to set up an NFZ as Gates’ words imply.  NATO Europe is stuffed full of fighter and strike-fighter aircraft, and absolutely crawling with command and control centers.  The level of military activity Qaddafi could mount is overkill against unarmed civilians, but would hardly put a dent in a NATO force, however hastily assembled.  The French carrier Charles de Gaulle, with its air wing, is back from its deployment to the Indian Ocean; the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), with its four squadrons of strike-fighters, is in the Horn of Africa area and could have been back in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Libya, by now.  One or two aircraft carriers could not sustain a 24-hour NFZ presence for more than a couple of days, but NATO could have scrambled its more numerous land-based air forces as well.  If Italy declined to allow the use of its airfields, France, Greece, and even Tunisia might well have been more cooperative.  NATO could arrange for in-air refueling.

The point is not that we should have established an NFZ, it’s that we could have.  The deficit here is not in what NATO forces could have been assigned or assembled to do.  That much is a simple, unarguable fact.  The deficit appears to be in what the US leadership has considered appropriate or even thinkable.  I would understand if Gates had said, “We’ve looked at a no-fly zone, but it was becoming clear that by the time we got one in place, the situation would probably have changed again.  Our goal is to stay ahead of the problem.”

But he didn’t.  What he said instead was that we hadn’t discussed handling Libya with our NATO allies at all.  Nothing about that makes sense.

J.E. Dyer blogs at Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.”  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.



  1. The unrest in the ME potentially threatens serious harm to the US’ oil dependent economy, so military readiness and contingency planning demand that the US should, at the least be talking with NATO to develop contingency plans.

    Therefore there can be only one of two reasons why no one in Gates, Defense Department has spoken with NATO;

    incompetence on a scale commensurate with culpable negligence…or…the imposition of an overriding agenda.

    Since Gates only answers to one man, that would place the imposition of that agenda squarely upon the shoulders of one Barak Hussein Obama…

    Either way it’s a damning indictment and if a matter of Gates’ incompetence, what excuse might Obama advance for keeping him on the job?

    Which inexorably leads to the conclusion that either Barak Obama has an agenda arguably hostile to American interests (which is arguably treasonous) or his allowing an incompetent to retain a critical position, reveals his own incompetence and unfitness for the Presidency.

    But then, we knew that already, didn’t we…

  2. About not having discussions, surely Gates is simply lying. It’s so unbelievable that he may not even mean it to be believed. His statement means the US isn’t going to do anything. No surprise; that’s been a theme of this administration. Disengagement from our regional and strategic interests is unwise in general. In Libya, or in the whole regional situation, maybe staying out of it for now isn’t unwise. A bunch of the people over there hate our guts. We shouldn’t encourage them to kill each other, but how hard are we obliged to work at stopping them? After all, they’re the guys with the Religion of Peace.

  3. If any outsider has an interest in the Libyan situation it’s the Italians. They probably have a significant number of their nationals on the ground there and the Libyans have more business relations with Italy than any other western country. Let’s let Berlusconi handle it.

  4. The fish rots from the head. Mister Peanut is in charge. Need I say more?

    It need not be a matter of a complete and thoroughgoing NFZ, right. Couldn’t we at this very moment be buzzing the f…… nuts houses with our jets when and as we please? What if he could not count on every now and then a trio of fighters showing up and taking out a radar facility, one of his Airbuses one of his villas, whatever? A non pissant President would have that MF guessing and sleepless in Tripoli. The guy would not be getting any sleep, and we might get some props in the Arab World. Who knows?

    And Hillary? she’s a joke: “We ummmmmm wish to errrrrrrrr state ummmmmmm unequivically that ummmmmmm violence should not errrrrrrr…….bla bla bla.

  5. Dr. Gates’ statement makes sense if it is factually accurate. What seems not to make sense is the possibility that it is factually accurate.

  6. Of course we haven’t had discussions. The Dude-in-Chief has more important business to attend to: he has to make a meandering speech in Cleveland, to promote his latest poll-tested campaign slogan — WTF.

    Hard to believe, but if you go to the White House website, you’ll still see WTF plastered all over the site. To which one can only reply, WTF.

    These days, he’s just mailing everything in — domestic and foreign. I wouldn’t be suprised if Michelle pulls an Eva on us: a fat-police coup. Now that I think about it, he gets skinnier every day — the two of them look like co-enablers in a bizarre Jack Spratt syndrome.

  7. Obama doesn’t care.

  8. Does WTF mean what I think it means?

    • WTF else would it mean?

      • why aren’t you on facebook, Mister Frog?

  9. I think this is a misquote by Weekly Standard. NATO had met on Libya by Feb 24, and Rasmussen has made at least two announcements. That 1) NATO would NOT be involved inside Libya, and that 2) NATO would assist in refugee issues.

    I would think Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria militaries are in close communication with NATO, through their Mediterranean Dialogue participation.

    Glad to hear the Egyptian army has deployed to the border. I expect the refugees, mostly migrant workers from Africa, and India, to become a major crisis.

    Instead of thinking NFZ and carrier deployment, you might want to watch the first ten minutes of the 1997 film “Air Force One” where US Special Forces snatch the genocidal dictator from his bed in his very heavily guarded palace. Yeah, Tom Clancy usually has a relevant scenario already defined.

    • Actually, I don’t think it’s a misquote. I recognize that Rasmussen said NATO would not be involved inside Libya. The reporting on that came out after I had posted this. It sounds like what Gates meant was that DOD was not talking to NATO about military involvement inside Libya.

      The wording from the TWS piece is still an odd way to put it. I stand by the reading of the whole piece: Libya was dispensed with quickly, and the meat of Gates’ discussion with TWS was about Afghanistan. Which is certainly important, but it still made no sense to give so little consideration or time to Libya.

      There was a lot more to say about Libya on the day of the discussion with Gates, and if he had said any of it, Stephen Hayes would have reported it.

      Meanwhile, we should most certainly have been talking to NATO about military activity inside Libya. At the very least, it might have been necessary to getting NATO nationals out safely. There is nothing wrong with saying any of that to the media. But more than that, Q’s pilots were defecting with warplanes and he was using naval guns from offshore against his population in Benghazi: this thing has already spilled across Libya’s borders. In no case do you just sit on your hands and assure the world you have no intention of taking action, when something like this breaks out so close to your alliance’s perimeter.

      I don’t think an NFZ on the model of the NFZs enforced against Saddam is the answer. If anything was to be done to keep Q’s planes and helos on the ground, it should have been done days ago by a pick-up NATO force, and done right: just destroy his air force, his armor, and his ammo depots. The guy wouldn’t have been able to fight back for more than about half an hour. Offer safe escort to any of his defensive fighter patrols, and they’d happily agree and leave the airspace open.

      But we didn’t do that, so I agree with Bill Kristol’s point on FNS this morning: we should bolster the new government declared in the eastern part of the country. Sanctions on Libya are a misapplied “solution,” but if Obama’s going to do it, the sanctions should at least be tailored to affect Q and not Libya Libre.

      Frankly, there would be nothing to apologize for in sending in a force to secure the oilfields. It will hurt Libyans the most if Q or another actor (rumors of Al Qaeda) is able to sabotage them. The Italians should be willing to form the core of this effort, although I wouldn’t leave them to do it by themselves.

      • Thanks for your response. I look forward to your new analysis in view of the flurry of news today. (Very disappointed at the UK Mirror news article that had a map dated Feb 28 showing major USN warships because it showed the USS Reagan still in San Diego even though local news reported it’s departure for the ME on Feb. 2.)

        I agree about sending in an EU/NATO force to help the Benghazi opposition in securing the oil fields and pipelines, without waiting for the UN’s ok, but I think the governing council should issue an invitation for the assistance. Very funny, having the Italians as the core. But they DO have wonderful MRE’s.

        I am reading Truman’s memoirs, and noted that Libya’s borders were cobbled together in order to ‘dispose’ of Italy’s colonies so that Italy could sign the WW2 peace treaty. As I study the maps of ethnicity, it occurs to me that Algeria could be looking at acquisition of the western gas fields/pipelines although the population is heavily Berber. Egypt’s military must be dreaming of the oil fields/pipelines in the east while they are trying to figure out how to repatriate the estimated 50,000 Egyptian migrant workers stranded at the Tunisian border.

        Not that the African Union will allow changes to colonial borders, but it does seem to me that Libya is a very unique case. Qaddafi never bothered with fraudulent elections, so he has no official position to resign, making the startling UN vote a bit easier for China and Russia. And, the way the map of Libya was created as a rushed afterthought to WW2 means perhaps a break-up is possible.

        The coast off Libya is getting very crowded.

  10. There’s a whole lot of puzzling stuff going on. Why, for instance, did the Administration send Enterprise through Suez in the first place when there’s ongoing trouble in the Med. The only answer I can see for that is that they have reason to fear even bigger trouble somewhere east of Suez. . .

    • fear? or show the flag to prevent?

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