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How Libya Saps America's Power

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
April 17, 2011
Daily Beast


Here's what America's worst enemies like Iran and North Korea are spouting on the international circuit about Libya: If the vaunted and mighty NATO and the U.S. can't humble that weirdo Col. Gaddafi and his pint-size army, "what do we have to worry about?" To be sure, NATO and the U.S. haven't hit Gaddafi with all they have for fear of killing civilians. But they have hit him hard and on the open desert—presumably ideal terrain to show off the West's devastating air power, as opposed to the muck-like guerrilla war in Afghanistan. And while the West's enemies know well NATO's self-imposed restrictions on air attacks, they assume that NATO and the U.S. would put such limitations on themselves no matter where they fought. Thus, to Tehran and Pyongyang, the lesson of Libya is that the West can't do decisive harm to them.

NATO leaders are well aware that their credibility and power are on the line. That's what drove President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday to say: "[S]o long as Gaddafi is in power, NATO must maintain its operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds." In other words, they still intend to get rid of the Q-ball. Yet, they also recognize that their hands are tied by the U.N. mandate, which in their own words is "to protect civilians... not to remove Gaddafi by force."

Western leaders fully appreciate the box they're in, and often ask their staffs to examine if and how they can do more to incite rebellion in Gaddafi's ranks. Have no doubt, however, that though NATO's use of force is limited, it is significant and sustained. Over the past four weeks, NATO has conducted over 3,600 sorties, more than 1,600 of them strike sorties. These strikes, averaging nearly 60 per day, have destroyed about one-third of Gaddafi's ground armor, as well as most of his fixed air-defense sites and aircraft. They've also seriously depleted Gaddafi's communication capabilities, a big part of military operations. Nonetheless, given strictures on killing civilians, NATO pilots patrolling above Tripoli last week could only watch as Gaddafi toured its streets in an open-top car. Also in recent days, NATO hasn't been able to protect rebels in Misrata, because Gaddafi's troops now use civilian vehicles and other civilian cover.

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