NATO’s Libya Bombing Error Won’t Help a Flagging War Effort

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The reason there’s a well-worn military euphemism – “collateral damage” – to describe incidents like Sunday morning’s air strike in which NATO admits it may have inadvertently killed Libyan civilians in a residential area of Tripoli is that they’re an inevitable consequence of waging war from the air. It happens so frequently in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the U.S.-allied governments in both places are forced into ritual denunciation of Western military action. And the embarrassment is that much more acute when the U.S. and its NATO allies claim to be at war to protect civilians — such as the dozens of Serb civilians killed by air strikes that struck buses, trains and residential areas in the course of the Kosovo bombing campaign – not to mention the Chinese embassy in Belgrade destroyed by cruise missiles, allegedly because of the use of an out of date map. Even in Libya, NATO has on at least three occasions mistakenly bombed rebel fighters.

But Sunday morning’s debacle — caused, NATO believes, by a “weapons systems failure” that resulted in a bomb or missile missing its target — could not have come at a worse time for the Alliance, whose war effort was exhibiting signs of deep strain even before the strike that will amplify criticism from within and outside of NATO over a mission that has morphed from its U.N. mandate to protect civilians from being overrun by Gaddafi forces to a campaign of bombing the dictator out of power.

The U.S. has sought to limit its involvement to a support role in a conflict that Defense Secretary Robert Gates made clear involves no vital U.S. national security interest — but that support role has included supplying much of the ammunition, after the European countries taking the lead began to run short in April. Even then, NATO’s capabilities are being stretched the political limit : Only ¬†eight member states are making aircraft available for strike missions. And a key launch platform for such strikes, the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, is to be withdrawn from the theater when the second 90-day cycle of NATO operations concludes in September — with no obvious replacement.

Nobody in NATO appears to have expected that Gaddafi would survive as long as he has done, but right now it would be unwise to bet too heavily against the regime surviving beyond September when the Alliance will have to renew its mandate. Plainly, there are enough people on the ground willing to fight for Gaddafi to prevent any decisive tipping of the military balance towards the rebels.

And whereas Western leaders hope that time is working against the dictator, whose power had demonstrably shrunk and whose regime is expected to suffer more defections, it may also be working against his adversaries.¬†The appetite of the European NATO members for the mission is already limited, and incidents like the bombing raid in the wee hours of Sunday are unlikely to help persuade European publics, who are in the grip of mounting social turmoil over economic austerity programs, that they ought to be beefing up their commitment to an expeditionary war in Libya. The political climate is even worse in Washington, where President Barack Obama last week found himself in trouble on Capitol Hill as he sought to circumvent the war powers act by suggesting that U.S. involvement in a campaign of bombing another nation’s capital city in order to force the surrender of its regime was a level of “hostilities” that fell short of “war”. Legislators may push back this week with legislation to limit funding for operations in Libya, supported by many Republicans and antiwar elements in the Democratic Party, reflecting a growing ambivalence in Washington toward further open-ended regime-change/nation-building entanglements in foreign countries.

Oh, and the Libyan rebel leadership announced in Benghazi on Sunday night that it had run out of money, with donor nations failing to come through on pledges.

The Western powers and their regional allies can’t allow themselves to lose in Libya, but they could lower the bar of what determines success: Short of a lucky “decapitation” strike that kills Gaddafi — and perhaps even then — the current level of NATO military commitments and the limited capabilities of the rebels point increasingly towards a stalemate in which neither the regime nor the rebels are able to deliver a knockout blow.

No surprise, then, that negotiations appear to be underway, with U.N. Secretary General reporting that he is encouraged by progress made by his envoy, former Jordanian foreign minister Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib, in brokering talks between the rebels and the regime aimed at achieving a political solution. Right now, the regime side is insisting that Gaddafi remain in power in some form, or at least remain in the country while one of his sons takes over the reins pending new elections. That’s a formula that’s unacceptable to the rebels — who insist that no such talks are even underway. And NATO countries are unlikely to accept Gaddafi remaining in power. But Sunday’s meeting in Cairo between the U.N., the Arab League and the European Union affirmed the urgency of finding a political solution in Libya.

Dependent financially and militarily on the backing of foreign countries, the rebels have limited muscle to enforce their will if it differs from that of their Western backers. Less may depend on what Benghazi is willing to accept than on what London, Paris and Brussels are willing to accept by way of an outcome. And Western powers have already made clear to the rebels that they will be expected, as a means of ending the conflict, to share power with a significant segment of those currently in the regime’s camp.

So even before Sunday’s “collateral damage” incident, it was becoming increasingly clear that what remains of the war “hostilities” right — fierce as they could become in the weeks ahead — now may be largely a matter of determining the shape of that compromise agreement under which Gaddafi is eased out.