Is Sen. John McCain’s visit Friday morning to the Benghazi strong-hold of Libya’s rebel forces a sign of creeping escalation in the conflict with strongman Muammar Gaddafi that may lead to eventual troop deployment by Western nations? Impossible to know at this point, of course, but events coinciding with McCain’s visit to opposition fighters he called “my heroes” does allow the question to be raised.
As an ardent and vocal backer the anti-Gaddafi rebels, it’s hardly surprising McCain made the journey to Benghazi to demonstrate his support of the opposition. Nor is it illogical he used that walk-about to renew his opposition to President Barack Obama’s decision to scale back U.S. military involvement in the air campaign against Gaddafi assets, and allow France and the UK to assume heaviest in that under NATO’s direction. But McCain’s calls for the U.S. and its partners to increase their support of and assistance to the Libyan opposition comes in the wake of earlier announcements committing new assistance to Libyan rebels—and which could turn out to be the first step in wider escalation. On Thursday, Obama announced the U.S. would begin using drones to as part of its participating in anti-Gaddafi air strikes. On Wednesday, meanwhile, the UK, France and Italy all announced they’d be sending military officials to advise rebel commanders seeking to shape up their rag-tag fighters into an effective fighting force.
But those European liaison officials will not participate directly in battle situations, British, French, and Italian diplomats urged; nor will they be involved with the actual training of rebel troops—limitations set to avoid accusations of active Western involvement in the ground war on the anti-Gaddafi side. Meanwhile, though there is disagreement between allies as to whether the current UN mandate for Libya allows Western intervention to seek the defeat and removal of Gaddafi as an objective in the mission, there’s general agreement thus far that all additional measures currently being taken can not and will not lead to the deployment of ground troops down the road.
But can we be so sure? However noble the cause involved—and getting rid of thugs like Gaddafi and his ilk in order to give Libya a shot a democracy seems worthy indeed–escalation is a slippery slope that can rob those who advance upon it control of their actions and options. As a supporter of the Iraq adventure from the get-go, McCain should know better than anyone how seemingly short-term, slam-dunk military interventions can quickly bog down into open-ended slogs requiring additional commitment (ie. escalation). And as we saw in Iraq, there’s also the risk of that prolonged, stakes-raising war in Libya drawing jihadist fighters to the conflict to exploit the resulting chaos in any way they can.
And despite the soothing comments by officials the European military advisors won’t become party to what’s now a civil war (begging the question “aren’t they already doing that by being in Libya, and helping coordinate NATO air strikes on the Gaddafi enemy?”), a New York Times piece on Tuesday notes how that, too, might morph over time. It quotes former British Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell warning against the liaison officers becoming “a first installment of further military deployment”, and darkly reminds that “Vietnam began with an American president sending military advisers”.
And that of course is true—but may wind up being beside the point if preventing Gaddafi from storming back, crushing the rebellion, and inflicting unthinkable revenge on the entire population of Libya means that, sooner or later, the international allies will have to ratchet their efforts up, and fully, frankly intervene on the ground. That’ll be a judgment call if and when it happens, but Western leaders should stop pretending it will not, can not, could not ever come to that. McCain’s visit seems symbolic as a reminder that it could, unless decisive action to back the rebels short of that isn’t found.