By Leaving Regime Change to the Libyans, Obama Aligns U.S. and Arab Goals

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The U.S. and its allies saved the Libyan rebellion from being crushed by Gaddafi, and will continue to restrain the dictator from rolling back rebel gains. Now, “We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gaddafi leaves power,” President Obama said Monday night, outlining his objectives in Libya. “It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Gaddafi tries desperately to hang on to power. But it should be clear to those around Gadaffi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on his side.”

But President Obama’s speech also made clear to Gaddafi’s challengers that while coalition air strikes saved Benghazi and allowed  the rebels to recover Ajdabiya, Ras Lanuf and Brega without a fight, the coalition does not plan to blast them into power.  “Kinetic” military operations were not going to be used to engineer a political change in Libya. “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq,” Obama said, adding that “regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”The U.S. goal remained regime change, but that could not be pursued as a military strategy because it went far beyond what was authorized by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which established the legal basis on which foreign powers could take military action in Libya.

So while the military action would necessarily weaken the regime’s ability to use force to repress its own people, a political process was needed to oust and replace Gaddafi — and it needed to be owned by the Libyans themselves.

The meaning on the ground of Obama’s promise to assist the rebels is open to wide interpretation: It could mean simply helping them set up a functioning administration in areas under their control, providing economic and development aid and building their capacity to govern. Or  it could mean arming them — either to better defend their own positions in the event of a Gaddafi counter-offensive, or to be able to storm the regime’s strongholds. (The latter is a problematic area — until now, the coalition has interpreted the applicable U.N. Security Council resolutions to mean that the arms embargo applies to the rebels as well as the regime, but there is, in fact, a loophole in UNSC 1973 that authorized military that could allow it under the “all means necessary to protect civilians” provisos.)

There’s still considerable doubt in Western capitals over the nature and composition of the rebel movement, and over its ability to offer a viable government for the whole of Libya as opposed to their eastern heartland. That’s why none of the other Western coalition partners have followed France’s lead in recognizing the rebel National Council as the legitimate government of Libya, although Qatar has done the same and has made a deal to buy the oil exports of the rebel-held territories.

But the takeaway, from Obama’s message to the Libyan rebels was that it was up to them to change their country — the coalition was ready to help and protect but not to deliver the killer blow to Gaddafi and his regime. The rebels’ territorial gains of recent days are largely attributable to the coalition air strikes that have prompted regime forces to rapidly withdraw from the rebellious eastern towns they were sent to pacify. But they appear to be digging in to defend Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, and easily repelled rebel attacks on the city on Monday.

Whereas in the towns further east, the coalition could claim to be protecting the civilian population by destroying the armor and artillery sent to squash their revolt, but Sirte did not join the uprising, and their appears to be significant support for Gaddafi there. That represents a challenge to the U.S. and its allies, because bombing the city’s defenses there may not fit within the terms of a mission defined simply as protecting civilians.
Rebel forces are reportedly also seeking talks with local tribal leaders in the hope of turning them against Gaddafi, thus weakening the regime’s defenses.

Some air strikes were reported from the town on Sunday night and Monday, and the aggressive uptick in bombing operations in recent days has fueled speculation that some coalition members are stepping up attacks in the hope of ensuring maximum rebel gains  ahead of Wednesday, when NATO assumes command of all aspects of the military mission.

France had fiercely resisted allowing NATO to take charge, because it has sought to use air strikes in support of a regime-change objective, while NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has made clear that the Alliance will restrict the mission to implementing the UN Security Council resolutions, which require the protection of civilians but say nothing about regime change. And NATO makes decisions by consensus, meaning its command of the mission will necessarily restrain parties seeking  more expansive terms of engagement, and give veto power to war skeptics such as Turkey and Germany.

On that score, Tuesday’s summit in London which is to be attended by NATO members and Arab coalition partners is expected to be a tense affair. There remains considerable discord among NATO members and other coalition partners over the terms of the mission, and there’s a growing push for some form of cease-fire — which, of course, is mandated by the same UN Security Council resolution that authorized the mission.

Britain is expected to try and forge a consensus that a cease-fire would be predicated on Gaddafi agreeing to stand down and leave the country, but again, that goes beyond the terms of UNSC Resolution 1973, and other NATO members, such as Turkey, are pressing for an immediate cease-fire that would begin a political process that would see Gaddafi stepping down.

President Obama’s reluctance to support a regime-change agenda may have disappointed his more hawkish critics at home, but it may be nonetheless prudent, and not only because the coalition would collapse if he did. Nor simply because the “coalition of the willing” approach landed the U.S. in a morass in Iraq, or because forcing out a regime essentially means taking responsibility for managing whatever chaos might follow.

It’s worth remembering that at the outset of their uprising, Libya’s rebels were fiercely opposed to foreign intervention. They wanted to own their struggle, just as their neighbors in Egypt and Tunisia have done, eventually relenting and calling for a no-fly zone only once that option became the last hope of saving the rebellion. But another Western-led regime-change effort, no matter how nobly motivated or how much more rapid and efficient, would undermine the very essence of the Libyan — and wider Arab — rebellion, which is their heroic claiming of control over their own destiny.