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Libyan Intervention's Uncertain Endgame

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
April 4, 2011


With Libyan rebels advancing (BBC) on the oil town of Brega, held by troops loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi, NATO will reportedly assume control today over airstrikes in Libya as the United States assumes a support role (WSJ). But while the rebels seem to have rallied, they remain poorly equipped and trained. This has sparked a sharp debate in Washington over whether the United States should help arm Qaddafi's opponents and whether even then the rebels are sufficiently organized to form a government if Qaddafi's regime falls.

The Obama administration has opposed sending ground troops to Libya; President Barack Obama has vowed he wouldn't do so and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ruled out any ground intervention (LAT) "as long as I'm in this job."  Gates says what the rebels need most is training, command and control, and organization, though these "are not a unique capability for the United States, and as far as I'm concerned, somebody else can do that."

Obama also faces opposition from many Republicans and some Democrats in Congress. The intervention debate increased last week, particularly among Republicans (TheHill), with a New York Times report that Obama had authorized the CIA to provide arms and other support to the rebels. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argues that Security Council resolution 1973 allows the supply of defensive weapons (Economist) if they would save civilian lives. But Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the president for both failing to seek authorization from Congress and for not explaining U.S. goals in Libya (DeutscheWelle) sufficiently. By contrast, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Fox News Sunday that arming the rebels should be considered. "I think the president was right not to take that off the table" (TheHill).

Analysts of all stripes are also divided on the question of what kind of support the United States should be providing in Libya. In the Washington Post, Paul Wolfowitz says that by backing the Interim Transitional National Council, the United States could set in motion a process leading to free elections, while Frederick Kagan argues in his Weekly Standard blog that since the United States has ruled out "measures that could force a rapid resolution," the best thing to try is "attacking Qaddafi's military equipment," even though it allows the conflict to continue. In Foreign Affairs, Michael O'Hanlon of Brookings warns that an ineffective intervention could leave a stalemate. And CFR's James M. Lindsay cautions that while the Obama administration has rejected the idea of ground troops and arming the rebels, the options for achieving its goals are covert operations or intensified aerial operations. "The former is always dicey, and the latter might do nothing more than produce civilian casualties," writes Lindsay.

Whether the rebels would be capable of governing if they were able to defeat Qaddafi forces is another question that adds fuel to the debate over U.S. involvement, which has cost around $550 million so far (Bloomberg). The military leadership is reportedly badly splintered, with leaders at odds (NYT) at a series of meetings in rebel capital Benghazi last week, according to Fathi Baja, a political science professor who heads the rebel political committee. There are some signs that the political leadership is coalescing (Economist), however, forming an "executive committee" and a nascent diplomatic corps. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to persuade a Congress uncomfortable with intervention that they are worth the U.S. investment.

Additional Analysis

In the New York Times Magazine, Robert F. Worth describes the transformation of Libyan citizens into a band of rebels.

President Obama's road in Libya may prove more similar than it now appears to President George W. Bush's road in Iraq, writes CFR's Meghan O'Sullivan in the Washington Post.

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