Belmont Club

Laundering A War

President Obama has made phone calls from Air Force One in an attempt to break the impasse over what command structure takes the lead once the US hands over the lead of the Libyan operation to its European allies.   France is against commanding the operation through NATO while the UK wants the alliance in charge. The supposed compromise is to run the operation through NATO while calling it something else. “The emerging deal would use Nato assets for command and control but not flag the mission as a Nato one.”

What is the underlying problem and what will the proposed solution achieve?

The root difficulty was highlighted when  European leaders met in Brussels to unsuccessfully thresh out their differences over the operation. Germany has refused to go along, throwing a bone to European unity by saying it would contribute humanitarian assistance.  But it is staying out of military operations; and that means France and Britain would have to go it alone, without German airplanes, ships and money.

Several EU member states, including France, Britain, Italy, Spain, and Poland, are part of the international coalition that began enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya last weekend and conducting air strikes against forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

But one of the EU’s most important members, Germany, abstained from the UN Security Council vote on the resolution authorizing the use of force and has declined to contribute to the mission.

Der Spiegel summarized the state of play and described where the negotiations among the allies were heading.

France has opposed handing control to NATO because of Arab skepticism about the alliance … Britain and Italy want the alliance to be in charge of the operation, however. Rome has threatened to restrict access to its air bases, which are crucial to the mission, if NATO does not take over control. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested that Britain or France could also take control of the mission, but some NATO officials doubt if either country could handle the operation by itself, according to Reuters. …

The NATO Council met again on Tuesday to continue discussing the issue. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE, there are hopes that an agreement will be reached in the coming days which would allow NATO to take over operational control for the implementation of the no-fly zone over Libya. Sources in Berlin said there was a chance that NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen could win the support of all alliance members for such a role.

But it is still unclear whether the NATO members would also support the alliance taking part in targeted air strikes against Gadhafi’s troops, something that is allowed under paragraph 4 of the UN resolution, in order to protect civilians. Several NATO countries are concerned that the organization could get bogged down in a drawn-out conflict that might involve ground troops.

Observers predict that Germany will support a NATO involvement, while continuing to refuse to contribute German troops to the operation. Berlin has been heavily criticized for its decision to abstain from the Security Council vote last week, with observers saying the government’s decision was motivated by domestic political concerns.

The NATO-not-NATO solution is probably designed to give France and Britain the means they lack to continue. The key dilemma is found in a phrase above: “US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested that Britain or France could also take control of the mission, but some NATO officials doubt if either country could handle the operation by itself”.  Without Germany to back them, there’s a chance that neither country can go forward.

With President Obama experiencing political difficulties the American waterhole may soon dry up. Creating a quasi-NATO channels will provide a way of laundering at least some US military resources to act in support while remaining in the background. By rebranding American assets they can be used as part of an “international effort” and hopefully will not be noticed acting in service of what is effectively the foreign policy of Britain and France and the unexplained goals of the Obama administration. Without that laundering, the Libyan mission may fail from lack of supply.

As in many other things, the lack of money and the shortage of honesty is the root of all evil. Nothing prevents Britain and France, acting unilaterally or jointly, from acting against Libya except the lack of money. Both are sovereign countries and have been to war with other countries many times through history, Britain most recently in the Falklands. Nothing prevents it that is, except the lack of resources. Similarly, nothing prevents the Obama administration from acting against Libya in alliance with Britain and France . Nothing that is, except the absence of a cogent reason; hence Obama’s unwillingness to get the approval of Congress. France and Britain have the political mandate but not the means while Obama has the opposite problem. He has the means but not the mandate.

The solution is to cook up this NATO-not-NATO command structure. That creates the shell by which Britain and France can gain access to American resources and may allow President Obama to keep going without explaining his war aims to Congress.  In that way they can protect the Libyan people from a dictator without aiming to dislodge him; as one might try to overthrow Hitler without really overthrowing him. But we really know they want to, or do we? The alternative to this shadowy policy is for Britain, France and the US to man up, frankly declare their goals and jointly obtain the political and logistical means to pursue a policy they can explain to their publics.

But that would be too simple. We live in an age of nuanced diplomacy and that makes everything complicated. There are fewer regimes on earth more odious than that of the Duck of Death’s. In a rational world an enterprise to overthrow him should have been greeted with universal acclaim. This should have been an easy, or at least a do-able sell instead of a via dolorosa. Only Barack Obama could be incompetent enough to give the project of overthrowing Khadaffi a bad name.

“No Way In” print edition at Amazon
Tip Jar or Subscribe for $5