Libyan Limbo

Six reasons why it's been so tough to get Qaddafi to quit.


As the war in Libya drags on, the United States faces a familiar predicament: Why, despite possessing overwhelming military superiority over any foe, does it have such a hard time using the threat of force to push much weaker dictators around?

This isn’t a new problem. During the 1990s, the United States and its allies found it much harder than expected to convince Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to stop repressing opposition groups and open suspected weapons facilities to inspectors, to protect civilians in Bosnia, to force Somali warlords to stop pillaging humanitarian relief efforts, and to compel Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to end his violent ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo.

A decade ago, we wrote a book pondering this very puzzle. The short answer was that political constraints often bind the United States and its coalition partners much more tightly than their adversaries, and in ways that offset advantages in raw military power. Those painfully learned lessons apply more than ever in Libya today and help explain why Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi isn’t flinching against the world’s most sophisticated military forces — despite his near-complete international isolation.

NATO forces and their Libyan rebel allies have scored some notable successes over Qaddafi. Eight high-ranking Libyan officers, including five generals, defected to Italy this week. Rebel forces drove Qaddafi’s troops back from Misrata last month, ending the suffocating siege of the strategically located city. But despite these advances, neither side appears poised to break out of the months-long military stalemate in western Libya.

NATO is not attempting to bring about a complete military defeat of Qaddafi, which would require a much larger military effort, but is instead trying to impose sufficient costs that his regime either surrenders or collapses. Airstrikes targeting the leadership compound in Tripoli, while ostensibly designed to degrade Libyan command-and-control capabilities, are also likely intended to hit Qaddafi and key regime figures. At the same time, international financial and military assistance to the ragtag rebel forces is intended to bolster the internal revolt against his regime. But targeting elusive (or at times just well-bunkered) regime leaders from the air is hard, and, so far, Qaddafi is showing resilience and resolve — much more than many advocates of intervention expected.

Six factors drawn from recent decades’ experience explain NATO’s difficulties — and why the Libya war could drag on for a long while longer.

1. Asymmetrical stakes: In their classic volume on coercive diplomacy, international relations scholars Alexander George and William Simons concluded that a strategy of military threats has a higher chance of success “if the side employing it is more highly motivated than its opponent by what is at stake in the crisis.” For the United States and NATO, this is a humanitarian mission, while for Qaddafi and his cronies it is a matter of life or death. Which side is more highly motivated?

As long as NATO’s goal is regime change, which appears to be the case, any bargain with Qaddafi’s regime is off the table. Furthermore, the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s request for arrest warrants for Qaddafi puts him further into a corner from which he may see no good options but to fight his way out. All of this means that Qaddafi will throw everything he has into this struggle, while the United States and its allies will not — and Qaddafi knows that.

2. Coup-proofing: Given the devastation that NATO is wreaking on Libya’s armed forces, as well as the defections of top members of Qaddafi’s regime, Europeans and Americans may be holding out hope that members of the Libyan leader’s inner circle could oust him from power. Don’t hold your breath.

One thing dictators do well — or they don’t remain dictators for long — is guard against internal threats. For four decades, Qaddafi bought off tribal and military leaders, put his relatives in leadership positions, played rival factions against one another, and established overlapping military units to make sure no single division could carry out a coup by itself. Spies penetrated every military unit and elite government circles, reporting any rumor of dissent. Most importantly, Qaddafi killed, tortured, and jailed — loyalty had its rewards, while dissent was savagely punished.

Ironically, the civil war gives the most disloyal (or opportunistic) leaders a way out short of a coup — they can join the rebels. This adds to the ranks of the opposition, but it won’t be the decisive blow that Washington seeks. The rebels’ promise of amnesty to regime forces that surrender is a good step in reducing their incentive to stay loyal to Qaddafi, but the biggest key to impelling further desertions is military victories, which so far are in short supply.

3. Coalition management: Building and holding together a coalition — along with winning support from the U.N. Security Council and other international groupings like the Arab League — is hard diplomatic work, and it usually limits the amount of force the coalition can use. As the cost of signing on, coalition members get a voice in how operations are conducted, what targets can be hit, and how their forces are used.

The NATO countries involved in the Libya mission are no exception. They are all over the map on how to handle Qaddafi. France and Britain would escalate international involvement, while Norway wants to find a political solution. Other countries, such as China, simply call for protecting civilians without endorsing regime change.

Qaddafi has tried to split the NATO coalition or generate diplomatic pushback to tougher measures. The Libyan leader, for example, declared “the gate to peace is open” and has welcomed mediators like South African President Jacob Zuma — empty rhetoric and gestures, of course, but ones that could potentially split off some coalition members or tie NATO up in internal deliberations.

4. Casualty sensitivity: U.S. military operations, especially in nominally humanitarian contexts, are conducted to minimize American casualties. In 1993, during the humanitarian mission in Somalia, 18 U.S. servicemen died in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident. Although hundreds, perhaps over 1,000, Somalis were killed in the same firefight, it was widely seen as a debacle and sped the U.S. withdrawal.

The American public is not fully behind the Libya operation. A recent poll showed that 54 percent of Americans supported the intervention and 43 percent opposed it. With support likely to decrease as operations drag on, even a few casualties risk undermining public and congressional support. The administration is thus unwilling to put troops on the ground or take other steps that would significantly escalate military pressure, yet entail the risk of further casualties.

Moreover, NATO planners are also very sensitive to collateral damage as civilian suffering undermines political and diplomatic support for operations — particularly in the case of a war that was justified on a humanitarian basis. Meanwhile, dictators like Qaddafi often look to exploit international aversion to collateral damage by placing civilians in harm’s way for their own political and diplomatic advantage — not to mention, to save their own skins. In Misrata, Qaddafi’s forces mixed their tanks and other heavy weapons with civilians to hinder NATO targeting. As one NATO officer put it, “When human beings are used as shields we don’t engage.” The result, once again, is the neutralization of NATO’s military edge.

5. Waiting games: When the United States and its allies shifted the goal of the Libya operation to include Qaddafi’s removal from power, the dynamics of the conflict also shifted: A tie — even if the U.N. Security Council mandate to “protect civilians” is satisfied — means the allies lose. The United States and its allies need to break the stalemate; Qaddafi only must maintain it. NATO leaders are calculating that attrition and pressure will wear Qaddafi down, but he probably sees time on his side, too: If he can only hang on long enough, the American and European publics will tire of the conflict.

Like any battle of wills, perception is everything. For Qaddafi’s regime to yield, it’s not enough for the coalition to sustain the pressure. Qaddafi has to believe that the coalition will do so. It’s not enough that his strategies fail to split the coalition or deplete U.S. political will. Qaddafi has to believe they will fail. When Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program and agreed to let Libyan officials stand trial for terrorism in the West, he did so because he believed he had little choice if he wanted his regime to escape isolation. Now the stakes are higher for Qaddafi, so the pressure has to be even greater.

6. Domestic politics: Just as President Bill Clinton did at the outset of the 1999 Kosovo crisis, President Barack Obama declared that ground troops were off the table in Libya. It’s one thing to calculate that ground troops are unnecessary, too costly, or required elsewhere — but why declare to the adversary that certain options for escalation are a non-starter?

Because domestic politics sometimes compel it. With his administration trying to extricate the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama had little interest in becoming embroiled in a third costly ground war. But his vow also tells Qaddafi that there are limits to international escalation, and it signals U.S. cautiousness and cost-aversion.

Because this is a war of choice for the United States, the domestic political constraints are tighter. President George W. Bush faced few constraints when he led the United States to war in Afghanistan in 2001 — almost all Americans supported the conflict and U.S. vital interests were obvious. There were tighter constraints in Iraq in 2003 but, because the strategic stakes for the United States were perceived as high, the president had more leeway. And because there are, at best, limited strategic reasons to intervene in Libya, Obama’s options are fewer.

Because perceptions are so important, one key to success lies at home. Qaddafi must believe that leaders in Washington and allied capitals will pay the price to oust him. The coalition must credibly establish a threat of escalation, and that means defending some difficult choices and costly options. U.S. adversaries in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere are quite aware of U.S. political deadlines. The heavier bombing in recent days, as well as decisions by Britain and France to deploy attack helicopters in Libya, suggests NATO may be moving in this direction. Such gradual shifts, however, are not likely to jolt regime elites into abandoning Qaddafi.

The Obama administration should keep these six factors in mind as it weighs its next steps. At this point, the United States and its allies must decide whether they will indeed pay the price to unseat Qaddafi and, if so, raise the stakes. Qaddafi’s regime has billions of dollars in frozen assets; some of this should be put at the rebels’ disposal, or coalition forces should at least give them loans with these assets as collateral. A new U.N. Security Council resolution should be passed to enable the open provision of military assistance to the rebels. These steps will make the rebels more effective, send a message to Qaddafi loyalists that the writing is on the wall, and eventually help stabilize Libya during the period after his regime finally falls.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. Twitter: @dbyman

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