As Day 5 of Operation Odyssey Dawn draws to a close, it’s worth taking the time to properly frame the objection raised by many, from Congress to the news media to thousands of bloggers, that President Obama has established no concrete objective for the operation.
The problem, in short, is that we are not doing anything in Libya that would resolve the situation and end the fighting. The biggest reason why nothing we are doing will produce that outcome is that the Libyan rebels themselves are incapable of securing a resolution.
In the current circumstances, they have a simple strategic need: take Tripoli. Doing so would at the very least deny Qaddafi his chief military assets, setting him on the run and putting him on the defensive.
But the rebels literally have no hope of doing that. They did not “seize” Eastern Libya through military force; they have very few resources. They have a limited ability to defend positions in the East, but they have no offensive capability that can be effective against Qaddafi’s remaining tanks and longer-range artillery. Qaddafi’s offensive may be stymied, but even if the coalition can break it with airpower, the rebels have zero capability to launch a decisive counteroffensive against him.
So the question whether Qaddafi is a target for the coalition is the central one in this operation. It’s not merely a nicety of the UN resolution’s wording, it’s the whole shooting match. If the coalition doesn’t take out Qaddafi, there is no obvious method of ending the conflict inside Libya.
It is interesting at this juncture to realize that we are much more certain of Qaddafi’s intentions than we are of the coalition’s. There has been nothing Delphic or evasive about Qaddafi’s communications. In the US, on the other hand, both the press and the general public – even Congress – are scrambling to decode Obama’s. In the capitals of Europe, defense ministers and national leaders are speaking at odds with each other; senior military officers have been categorical that Qaddafi is not a target, while British Prime Minister David Cameron has been point man for the leadership message that he might be.
In the midst of this disorder, Obama plans to shift command of Odyssey Dawn from the US to someone else. That is literally the proposition: someone else. The important criterion is that it be someone else; Obama has been saying since Saturday that he wants to turn this thing over, but has yet to state who the next at-bat is to be.
The media are reporting that NATO is likely to take over in the command seat, which is what we would expect. The obvious command is the Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy; Fox’s Jennifer Griffin implied this morning that this command was likely to receive the call.
Naples is, of course, a different city from Stuttgart, Germany, where the commander of US Africa Command, Army General Carter Ham, has been executing Odyssey Dawn for Obama. But Commander, Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy, is Admiral Samuel Locklear, whom alert readers will recognize as the current commander of the US-led Operation Odyssey Dawn task force.
This fact serves to highlight the exceptional significance to Obama of the appearance that the US is just one of several nations in any given multilateral coalition. The US is so embedded with NATO, and provides such a significant portion of its forces, that the average NATO operation is likely to be conducted under US leadership anyway.
Indeed, the White House’s inability to decide whom to turn the Libya operation over to may derive in part from the fact that the obvious NATO command would entail nothing more than a cosmetic shift, in the public’s eyes. Admiral Locklear would merely move ashore to his NATO HQ in Bagnoli. (Another political consideration is, of course, that NATO allies Germany and Turkey have maintained their distance from the Libya operation and might not concur in a plan to NATO-ize it.)
Obama has spent weeks now refraining from the “appearance” of targeting Qaddafi, attacking Qaddafi, or in any way seeming to deploy military force to drive Qaddafi out. If the pick-up coalition eventually does decide that that’s the only sensible course, the real question will be why we didn’t just do it back in February and spare Libyan lives. And if it doesn’t – if the coalition, under anybody-but-US leadership, decides that it must limit its mission to “protecting” the Libyan people – then, in default of some unplanned luck, we’re probably going to be here awhile.