In Libya, the Clock Is Ticking Toward NATO Failure

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n Italian SD3 H takes part in maneuvers on the Italian aircraft carrier "Giuseppe Garibaldi" during the NATO operation codenamed "Unified Protector" on June 15, 2011 in the Mediterranean sea. (Photo: Marcello Paternostro / AFP / Getty Images)

Western leaders may insist that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is weakened, isolated, irrelevant, and about to bow out, but their words hide hide a growing anxiety  in Western capitals about the implications of his tenacity. Three months and counting into a bombing campaign that has yet to force out the regime, there’s growing political discord over the issue in and among the countries backing the mission. Even if he is forced out, Gaddafi will certainly take solace in the price he has been able to extract for his ouster.  Because as time drags on, the Libyan adventure is at risk of going seriously pear-shaped for the West. Here are some reasons why:

* As Tony’s recent post noted, renewed reports of rising civilian deaths from errant NATO bombings undermine support of the air campaign both inside Libya and around the world. It doesn’t matter that wider strikes—and indeed, the entire international intervention—are designed to destroy the hated Gaddafi’s fighting ability, and eliminate his power to massacre opponents if given a free hand: news of significant civilian casualties blamed on mis-targeted Western bombs creates hostility to the NATO effort within Libya, causes similar souring across the Arab world, and raises significant doubts about the entire operation elsewhere, too.

Following the most recent civilian bombing deaths Sunday, Arab League officials whose backing was vital in getting U.N. approval of the Libyan operation expressed “misgivings” about having lent that support, and demanded a negotiated political solution to the conflict. Italy on Wednesday joined calls for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire, underscoring Rome’s initial doubts about the wisdom of military intervention. Italy’s call to suspend the bombing campaign will further increase the strains already evident within the NATO-led coalition on whether the operation should have ever been launched at all—and how to complete it quickly and successfully now that it enters its fourth month of slog.

(PHOTOS: Scenes from the Battle for Libya)

* Doubts and strains are also becoming evident in other European capitals, as political fallout of the operation piles up. On Tuesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a surprisingly shrill rebuke of military officials who had earlier warned that the Libyan campaign will become very difficult to continue with the current level of resources—much less complete successfully—if it goes on much longer. A clearly piqued Cameron retorted, “I tell you what, you do the fighting and I’ll do the talking”. In an era of budget-slashing and deficit reduction, the Conservative prime minister can ill afford to be second-guessed on his decision to lead a Libyan intervention whose price tag will rise to nearly $1 billion as it drags on witn no end in sight. Or, as the New York Times John Burns notes:

 Originally envisaged as lasting a matter of weeks, the air campaign is now into its fourth month. It has seen NATO conduct nearly 12,000 air missions over Libya, about one-third of them involving strikes by bombs or missiles, some of them seemingly intended to kill the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The air strikes have virtually obliterated Colonel Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya command compound in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and reduced the fighting capacity of the Libyan forces by about 50 percent, according to Pentagon estimates. But there has been no sign that the Qaddafi government is at risk of crumbling under the pressure, at least not soon.

* Potential for similar (and belated) push-back is growing in France, where the both houses of parliament will debate French involvement in the Libyan campaign—as required by the constitution on all military conflicts lasting four months. Given the wide-spread support of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s role in prodding the international community to intervene in Libya to begin with, its unlikely leftists will seek to reverse their position during the July 12 debate by attacking Sarkozy for his decision to join the international intervention. Yet, past bipartisanship on the operation is no guarantee of it lasting into the future—even among Sarkozy’s fellow rightists.

On Wednesday, former premier and current conservative presidential candidate Dominique de Villepin told French radio the Libyan campaign had gone on long enough, and already achieved everything that could be achieved by  force. From here on out, de Villepin urged, “the accent should be placed on (finding) a political solution in Libya”. The previous day, conservative legislator and foreign affairs specialist Axel Poniatowski similarly said that some sort of diplomatic solution for Libya had to be found to help end the military action. Conservative MP and defense expert Michel Voisin says that while few legislators have yet to turn against an operation they were told would be very brief, the risk of it becoming a slog means “some are now asking themselves if this intervention was really necessary, and if it’s worth pursuing”.

(PHOTOS: Portraits of Revolution: Photos of Revolt in Egypt, Libya and Beyond)

* The Libyan worm may not have finished turning in the U.S. either, where — as we humbly predicted  — President Barack Obama’s decision not to consult Congress under the War Powers Act is generating denunciation from both parties. It’s also generating hostile reaction and unflattering comparisons to Bush administration quick-pitch power grabs. That in turn isn’t doing much to help presidential PR that had already been weighed down by the unpopularity of the Libyan operation within American public opinion. Just as bad, Obama’s contention the military air raids don’t legally qualify as “hostilities” is also being contradicted beyond the scenes of mass violence the bombing campaign produce (including accidental deaths of civilians).  Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon considers the Libyan operation sufficiently hostile it’s providing American soldiers involved with “imminent danger” pay beyond their normal salaries.

Of course, the Pentagon’s action doesn’t negate the separate, free-standing White House analysis that it isn’t legally bound to consult Congress on a conflict it doesn’t consider war. But that won’t prevent legislators—and, more broadly, Republican opponents—of using the side step as another way to challenge Obama for his decision on Libya, especially as the mission endures. His alternative legal definitions for that conflict, meanwhile, also aren’t deterring leaders in the UK, France, Italy and elsewhere from calling the operation in Libya “war”—nor fearing the consequences of what that war may carry for them if they can’t find some way of helping anti-Gaddafi rebels win it very, very soon. The clock is ticking for NATO nations involved in the Libyan intervention, and each passing week suggests it will require a dramatic game-changing play to avoid a costly draw–a result that much of the world will score a defeat for participating Western leaders.

PHOTOS: Rebel Train in Libya