The Envoy

Was intervening in Libya a mistake?

The Envoy

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The death of two acclaimed photojournalists covering fighting in the besieged Libyan port city of Misrata Wednesday left their family, colleagues, and friends reeling and heartbroken. But the news also came amid a growing litany of questions about the progress of the intervention effort in Libya.

And one key question stands out: Did the international military intervention in Libya actually worsen humanitarian conditions on the ground by escalating and prolonging a civil war that the rebels cannot win?

When the United States, Britain, and France--the lead members of the global coalition--launched the initial round of air strikes against forces loyal to Libyan strongman Moammer Gadhafi, their key achievement was preventing Gadhafi  forces from retaking the eastern Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi. In making the case for Western intervention, President Barack Obama cited the credible threat that, had Gadhafi managed to retake Benghazi, he would unleashed a revenge massacre in the city of 700,000. Below, a review of the factors that could conspire to turn the Libyan mission into a long-term stalemate.

Ongoing deadlock on the ground. Since averting the fall of Benghazi, the NATO-led military campaign can cite few concrete gains in the month-long conflict. Regime and rebel forces have largely been locked in a ground-war stalemate. And as a result, the optimal outcomes for Western war planners--either a swift rebel victory or Gadhafi's departure into exile--now seem unlikely at best.

Humanitarian progress thwarted. Meanwhile, with the capital city of Tripoli firmly in Gadhafi's grip and Benghazi remaining a rebel stronghold, reports indicate that humanitarian conditions have deteriorated in cities that are still enmeshed in fighting. This is especially true in the besieged port city of Misrata--Libya's third largest city and a former thriving commerce center with a population of 550,000. Human-rights trespasses there are now worse than they were than six weeks ago, observers say.

Western military leaders double down, amid criticism. Not surprisingly, the leaders of the NATO coalition have sought to allay fears of humanitarian setbacks with increased military commitments. France, Italy, and the United Kingdom announced this week that they would send a total of about 40 military advisers to aid Libyan rebels, while the United States announced plans to send $25 million in non-lethal assistance to the rebels.

And in one sign the Obama administration is feeling pressure to increase its commitment to the allied military effort in Libya, Obama approved the use of Predator drone aircraft in Libya, according to a new Washington Post report.

Veteran military analyst Anthony Cordesman tore into western leaders for letting wishful thinking, rather than sober military planning, guide their Libyan efforts. The recently announced plans to deploy teams of western military liaisons to Benghazi would take months, at best, to show results on the ground, he stressed, as meantime the humanitarian crisis in the country of 6.6 million people deepens.

U.S., French, and British leaders "seem to have assumed that a largely unknown, divided, and fractured group of rebels could win through sheer political momentum and could then be turned into a successful government," Cordesman, wrote in a paper for his employers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"In the month that has followed, it has become all too clear that gambling on Qadhafi caving in has created a far more serious humanitarian crisis for the Libyan people than would ever have occurred if the Coalition had acted decisively from the start and had directly attacked Gadhafi, his centers of power, and the military forces loyal to him," Cordesman argued.

Public lukewarm on intervention, but fears mission. Cordesman's critique came as new polling showed some erosion in already ambivalent public approval for the handling of the Libya intervention. It appears, however, that most Americans are uncomfortable with the United States either increasing or decreasing its role.

A new Washington Post/ABC poll shows that some 49 percent of Americans now disapprove, while 42 percent approve, of Obama's handling of the Libya intervention. That's a significant shift from last month, when just 34 percent of Americans disapproved of the Libya action, and 45 percent approved.

Still, those surveyed said they don't want Obama to dramatically change the level of U.S. military commitment -- for now. Fewer than one in five respondents--18 percent--agreed that the United States should step up its military involvement in Libya. Eleven percent said that America should reduce its commitment, and a whopping 68 percent suggested that it should be kept about the same.

"The administration's challenge is pursuing its interests and not getting sucked into bearing the whole burden," said Jon Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The biggest problem the administration has is how to calibrate the U.S. effort partly with regard to other interests in Mideast," Alterman added. "With Iraq sufficiently distant in people's minds, people can't imagine alternatives to a completely unacceptable situation that may also be unacceptable."

Stay the course? The Obama administration argues for giving the current military strategy time, while letting accompanying economic and diplomatic pressures play out against Gadhafi.

"Intervening was the best of a range of bad choices," said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former top foreign policy strategist with the Obama administration, said Slaughter, who along with her former boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advocated for international humanitarian in Libya. "Would we really be better off having watched a massacre in Benghazi and Gadhafi in brutal control of the whole country?"

"Revolution is bloody and ugly, but we should be honoring the bravery of those who are willing to fight for their freedom rather than assuming that their fate is in our hands," contended Slaughter.

(Libyan youth sits in the back of a truck as they cross the Tunisian-Lybian border of Dhuheiba, Tunisia, Thursday, April 21, 2011.: Pier Paolo Cito/AP)

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