Europe's sinking Libyan ambitions

Confronted with a difficult stalemate, the situation in Libya is quickly becoming Europe's very own Middle East 'quagmire'.

Stratfor.com

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron will meet in Paris on Wednesday over a dinner to discuss the situation in Libya, according to a French government source quoted by the AFP. The announcement comes after London and Paris levelled criticism at NATO, saying that the alliance was essentially not doing enough in Libya to have an impact on the ground. It also follows an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday where the European Union endorsed the basic outlines of an EU "military-humanitarian” mission that has no identified purpose or mission structure, but is the first foray into at least introducing the idea of a potential mission shift that would necessitate "boots on the ground.”

The situation in Libya is quickly becoming Europe’s very own Middle East "quagmire,” to borrow the term used to describe the Iraqi and Vietnamese conflicts. France and the United Kingdom pushed for an intervention in Libya, but are now faced with a situation that has quickly devolved into a stalemate, with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi set to rule western Libya and with eastern Libya under some level of control of a yet undefined rebel movement, tangentially represented by the Libyan National Transition Council. The main distinction between where Europeans are today and where America was in Vietnam and Iraq is that the sunk costs of a ground commitment have not yet been made, which makes it easier, albeit politically unpalatable, for France and the United Kingdom to quit.

There are three primary reasons for the stalemate. First, the ultimate goal of the intervention, despite not being cited by the UN Security Council resolution authorising the military operation, is regime change. However, this cannot be achieved solely via airstrikes. Second, the rebel forces that were supposed to provide the ground troops to topple Gadhafi and provide an element of authority following his ouster are inadequate as a fighting force. Third, while the strikes have not brought down Gadhafi or even prevented him from attacking Misurata, they have proved effective in preventing an eventual attack on Benghazi.

How did the Europeans find themselves in this predicament? France and the United Kingdom were emboldened by a slew of early Gaddafi loyalist defections and examples of relatively quick ousters of neighbouring Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to pursue a limited military intervention in Libya. Their motivations were diverse, but what unites London and Paris today is that a stalemate in Libya will be perceived as a failure on the part of both, and Europe in general, to make and execute effective international security policy. This is an issue of reputation both regionally and domestically, particularly for Sarkozy, whose approval rating has not benefited from the overall popularity of the intervention among the French public.

France has, for example, begun levelling criticism against NATO primarily to absolve itself of the ineffectiveness of the current mission. On Tuesday alone, French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet and Foreign Minister Alain Juppe hinted at everything from the idea that certain NATO member states are preventing the French air force from conducting aggressive airstrikes, to the suggestion that the US has removed its ground strike capacity too quickly and withdrawn into the background before the mission was accomplished.

The question now is where do the Europeans go from the current predicament. The statements from Paris seem to suggest that some sort of a stalemate is becoming acceptable and that the French government is working hard to absolve itself from responsibility of the failure to enact regime change, setting the stage to lay the blame on the less aggressive NATO allies.

Yet even a stalemate will not be easy to maintain. While it is true that with significant coalition airpower in place, Gaddafi will ultimately be unable to cross the desert that separates the Gulf of Sidra from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi (and all that is east of it), the problem remains that the rebels will not be completely secure. Enforcing some sort of a demilitarized zone would be largely ineffective. While it would be simple to place a small number of foreign troops on the main coastal highway, it is not as if Gaddafi loyalists would not be able to go through the desert south of the highway with small sabotage teams to harass the rebels’ command and control, as well, energy-producing facilities. Furthermore, foreign troops separating the two sides would become targets. This leaves the rebels holding on to the northeastern portion of the country with no safe link to the energy fields in the south. It also leaves Gadhafi in control of the western portion of the country with all the security implications that will have for the Mediterranean.

This leaves Europe where it started, almost 20 years to the day in the emerging conflict in the former Yugoslavia, with a reputation for not being able to resolve security problems in its own neighbourhood. That is exactly the perception that Paris set out to change with an aggressive policy in Libya. Paris and London understand this, which is why they have the incentive to spread the blame to other NATO member states and to make sure that the stalemate is ultimately resolved. However, it is becoming clear that the only way to do the latter, considering the woeful inadequacy of rebel forces, is to engage in a war against Gadhafi via ground forces. This is why the issue is being floated via the yet undefined "military-humanitarian” missions and through various leaks to the European press. The Europeans are testing the public perception to the idea, while trying to bluff Gadhafi into thinking that the stakes are about to become higher.

The current state of affairs in Libya is ultimately the product of Europeans, and the United States along with them, having not pursued an aligned military strategy consistent with political goals. Military objectives were based on a loosely worded UN. Security Council resolution that defined defending civilians as the primary goal of the intervention. Setting aside our argument that the real political goal has from the beginning been regime change, the military strategy wasn’t wholly capable of accomplishing the humanitarian goal either. This is primarily because the intervening countries placed an upper limit of how much effort they would exert in the pursuit of such a humanitarian goal. Namely, as was the case with Kosovo, no Western soldiers would be put in harm’s way in a ground invasion. This limit on effort merely meant that Benghazi was saved from Gaddafi's heavy artillery so that Misurata could be destroyed through urban combat two weeks later.

Stratfor.com Reprinted with permission of STRATFOR.

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