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Ron Radosh

Our Libyan War: What Position Should Skeptical Conservatives Take?

March 31st, 2011 - 11:07 am

I happen to disagree with Paul’s anti-interventionist position. Nevertheless, he raises legitimate questions that have to be faced, when he argues that:

Intervening in a civil war in a tribal society in which our government admits we have no vital interests to help people we do not know, simply does not make any sense. Libyan society is complicated, and we simply do not know enough about the potential outcomes or leaders to know if this will end up in the interests of the United States, or if we are in fact helping to install a radical Islamic government in the place of a secular dictatorship.

To close off criticism, as Kristol suggests, is to make it a certainty that problems like those Paul points to will not be addressed, until it might be too late. Today, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates told Congress that there would be no American troops in Libya, “as long as I’m Secretary of Defense.” At the same time, he declined to comment on the news reports that the president has authorized the CIA to enter Libya, to advise the rebels and to gather intelligence of airstrikes.

Undoubtedly, the comment made by Rep. Howard P. McKeon, (R. Ca.) that “history has demonstrated that an entrenched enemy like the Libyan regime can be resilient to airpower,” is accurate.  McKeon noted that “if Qaddafi does not face an imminent military defeat or refuses to abdicate, it seems that NATO could be expected to support decade-long no-fly zone enforcement like the one over Iraq in the 1990s.” And, eventually, although he did not make this point, ground troops might be the only step that could be taken to make the military intervention successful.

If so, who will provide them — the French? To date all the powers who back the military effort seem to be hoping that it will not come to this, that air strikes, CIA advisors and a no-fly zone that already has been successful will do the job. But the latest news reports indicate that rebels are still in retreat, and that Qadaffi’s forces are advancing and have a great deal of fight left in them. Indeed, Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen were testifying, the news report notes,  just as “Colonel Qaddafi’ s forces pushed the rebels into a panicked retreat, and recaptured towns they had lost just days ago because of allied airstrikes.”

Moreover, although Gates told the congressional panel that the intervention would be limited and would end in Qadaffi’s successful removal from power — a goal the President contradicted by arguing that the intervention was only one of a humanitarian nature — Gates would not say what would be done if Qadaffi is still in power.

Bill Kristol may say that he supports the war because it is one being fought for regime change, but according to Gates, “We tried regime change before, and sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it’s taken 10 years.” Clearly, Gates is ruling that out as a reason for the intervention. The Senate has not as yet passed Marco Rubio’s proposed resolution, and the chances that divided Republicans and peace-minded Democrats will support it is, I believe, rather slim at present.

Others have pointed out that even if President Obama gives the order to arm the rebels, the kind of military hardware they would be given takes months of training to use, and the current rag-tag rebel army would not be equipped to use them effectively and therefore would be unable to win victories against Qadaffi’s forces even with these arms.

That leaves us with the question it seems few are as yet willing to advance. If air strikes are not working, and armed rebels still are retreating, clearly the only way to succeed in pushing Qadaffi out  – it is not enough for Obama to say “Qadaffi must go” — will be some nation’s ground troops. This is not the ’90s, when our Bosnia intervention could be handled by NATO airstrikes in Belgrade.

Yes, Mullen and Gates have told Congress that other nations have troops, and they can handle it. I’ll see it when I believe it. The only superpower with the ability and the amount of troops needed for success is the United States. But our president has ruled that out. If he changes his mind, which he may well have to if it seems failure is imminent, he will be in the position of again reversing a promise he made a short time ago. Secretary Gates would most probably resign than agree to be in charge of implementing such a step, and new opposition would arise in the country at large.

I hope our mission is successful, that the current level of intervention leads to a quick defeat for Qadaffi and his regime, and that a new government dedicated to a democratic Libya comes into being. But I wouldn’t count on it.

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