A strategy for Libya

How to impose a ceasefire and why the Europeans should be prepared to deploy ground troops Photo: Associated Press

PARIS — March 21, 2011 – It is difficult to remember the last time an American Administration has faced a challenge more difficult than the one it faces today in the Middle East and North Africa. In this critical hour, both Democrats and Republicans must sympathize with the President. Whatever disagreements they may have with him politically, whatever mistakes he may have made tactically, his general conduct deserves the respect and support of both parties.

Libyan people celebrate on a tank belonging to the forces of Moammar Gadhafi in the outskirts of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Sunday, March 20, 2011. The tanks were destroyed earlier by NATO planes. (Photo: Associated Press)

Libyan people celebrate on a tank belonging to the forces of Moammar Gadhafi in the outskirts of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Sunday, March 20, 2011. The tanks were destroyed earlier by NATO planes. (Photo: Associated Press)

Libya is actually the lesser of the two crises that the President faces today in the Arab world. From the standpoint of American interests, Bahrain is more important, but I will leave that for a later post and concentrate on Libya, on which it is impossible to keep mum.

In a recent post, I argued that the United States should not intervene directly but if ever the Europeans decide to do so, we should help. That time seems finally to have arrived.

The strategic objective of the allies is quite clear; it is to bring an end to the killing of civilians. It is not to bring about the fall of Moammar Gadhafi. Neither the U.N. Resolution nor the communiqué released after the summit in Paris tells Gadhafi to step down; and this I believe is wise, for there is no guarantee that the fall of Gadhafi will end the civil war. It may get worse after his fall; for who can say that the rebels will not inflict on Gadhafi the cruelties that Gadhafi has inflicted on them?

But the trouble with imposing a cease-fire is not so much the objective, which is clear enough, but the execution. On the face of it, a cease-fire is the simplest of strategic objectives, but historically, it is an extremely difficult measure to implement.

Generally speaking, there are two ways to do it. The first is to call on both sides to stop fighting, and the first one who shoots, we shoot. If Gadhafi attacks the rebels, we attack him. If events take that particular course, it will be a simple matter of shooting back at Gadhafi’s forces. But what if it is the rebels who instigate? And what if Gadhafi responds? Who do we shoot then? 

The problem becomes even more complicated by the layout of Gadhafi’s forces. They are based in Tripoli but spread out all over Libya, in both the west and the east. What this means is that even in the unlikely case that both sides were to lay down their arms, the present configuration is difficult to enforce and unlikely to be permanent.

The problem with this first method is that, much like the law, it assumes impartiality and condemns the act rather than the result. But impartiality in the use of force is very close to being an impossible dream. There is no hiding the fact that our intervention is a danger to Gadhafi and that he would prefer to keep fighting. There is no hiding the fact that the West is intervening on the side of the rebels.

Having settled that, it is absolutely necessary to set a limit on the degree of assistance that we are willing to give to the rebels. We are clearly not prepared to go so far as to assist them in the toppling of Gadhafi. What we must do is draw a line in the sand, literally, behind which Gadhafi’s forces must fall back and beyond which we are unwilling to attack.

This line must be drawn as soon as possible and stuck to for the remainder of this conflict. It will resolve a great deal of ambiguity for all sides, including Gadhafi’s. Gadhafi will know what he must do to survive. The rebels will know exactly how far the allies will help them, and the allies will know exactly what they are fighting for.

Once Gadhafi is aware of this line, however, he will surely carry out a severe repression on his side of it, believing, quite rightly, that the allies will only go so far to stop him. It is important, therefore, that the allies draw this line heavily to Gadhafi’s disadvantage. Only those cities that have already passed over into Gadhafi’s hands should go to Gadhafi. Otherwise, the international community will be accused, quite rightly, of collaborating in the extermination of the remaining rebel forces.

Both Obama and Sarkozy mentioned in their recent statements that Gadhafi must pull his forces out of Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Misratah, and Zawiyah. But knowing Gadhafi, it is unlikely that he will simply agree to what will essentially be a partition of Libya. Most likely, he will try to conquer as much territory as he can to use as bargaining chips for an eventual negotiation or he may continue fighting in the vain hope that the allies will lose heart and withdraw.

But the allies cannot back down. At the very least, the four cities mentioned above must go to the rebels. Hopefully, a combination of air strikes and a renewed rebel offensive will do the job, but if the rebels fall back, the French and the British must be prepared to commit ground troops. The United States has exempted itself from using this option, but the British and the French, quite rightly from their point of view, have not ruled it out. The Security Council Resolution prohibits an occupation force, but an invasion force is a different matter.

How will it all end? If Gadhafi survives, I can see no other result but the partition of Libya into two parts, and if he is toppled or killed, a long period of chaos may ensue. Neither of these two results is perfect, but it is much better than a Libya unified under the bloody hand of Gadhafi. 


Benjamin Ra is a graduate student in International Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. American foreign policy is his main interest. Read more of Benjamin’s writing in A Word on the National Interest in the Communities at the Washington Times.

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Benjamin Ra

Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate of Sciences Po Paris. He writes mainly on foreign policy and is currently residing in South Korea. 

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