Belmont Club

Intermission

Hanin Ghaddar at Lebanon Now argues that Syria’s troubles with protesters, like those of other countries in the region, are nothing to do with the West. They are mostly between a population sick of being ruled with an iron hand and an elite that doesn’t know how to do anything else. Even invoking support for the “struggle against Israel” doesn’t divert attention any more. So the Syrian regime in particular is using stalling tactics to hold off dissent; it is offering the discontented a roadmap for reform which Ghaddar says is bound to be a black hole, a regime created committee in which proposals are doomed to go an die. The same process is now underway in Libya, with one suspects, a sigh of relief from the Obama administration.

The NYT reports that some of Khadaffi’s sons are offering to eventually replace their father, though that was probably the plan anyway, but their new sweetener is that now they’ve also promised to expand the democratic space after the succession process, assuming they can all agree.  Some of the Duck’s sons are “moderate” while others are “hard line”. You can see where this is going. It’s a Black Hole which Khadaffi is inviting Washington to step into.

But it might be better than nothing. The Washington Post reports that “officials” are now resigned to a stalemate in Libya. “U.S. officials are becoming increasingly resigned to the possibility of a protracted stalemate in Libya, with rebels retaining control of the eastern half of the divided country but lacking the muscle to drive Moammar Gaddafi from power.”

New evidence of a possible impasse emerged Friday as an opposition spokesman called publicly for a cease-fire that would halt the fighting and essentially freeze the battle lines. … At the same time, British officials privately disclosed a recent visit to London by a senior aide to one of Gaddafi’s sons, prompting new speculation that those close to the Libyan leader were exploring ways to end the fighting.

The Khadaffi clan plan reported by the NYT would allow the administration to declare some kind of victory over the Duck on the basis of a promise to bring democracy to Libya eventually.  It is actually an offer for Washington to surrender to Libya, though President Obama would probably not want it described in that way.

But there is evidence more than one track is being explored.  Unless the Administration is willing to throw in the towel for good and all, they need another option besides giving up. The Duck is probably unwilling to thrust forward and Paul Wolfowitz suggests the time can be profitably used to figure out who is fighting who. “How can the international community be sure that this is not a war between two groups that both enjoy broad support, and that a rebel victory might simply reverse the roles of oppressor and oppressed? Simply put, we can’t. We don’t know the loyalties of people in regime-controlled cities, including Tripoli. Journalists have no unrestricted access to the population.”

The answer he puts forward to his own question is to provide support for a process rather than a group of people and see who signs up. But to do that, the US must signal that Khadaffi’s exit — the old style of authoritartianism — is gone. The way to do this is by supporting an “Interim Transitional National Council” which would be the government of the future. Frederick Kagan at the Weekly Standard says that a campaign to gradually wear down Khadaffi’s heavy weapons is necessary if the military balance is to be altered. The Duck has figured out that the best way to avoid exposing himself to airpower is to fire his weapons from populated areas, tactics employed by Hamas and Hezbollah, thereby shielding his weapons with civilians.  That tactic might be countered by a US UAV presence over Libya which over time could plink Khadaffi’s weapons into oblivion by sniping at them at vulnerable moments.

In other words, the US must maintain a victory option if it is to keep its intervention viable. But buying into the future without critically examining the actors of the present could lead to unforeseen consequences. News from Egypt, for example, indicates that thousands of persons have been arrested since the fall of Mubarak, and activists are claiming the departure of the old strongman was simply the beginning, not the end. Egypt illustrates the process of bureaucratic momentum. Rebels keep rebelling and Middle Eastern armies keep acting in authoritarian ways because it is by now a way of life. Similarly, the effort to topple Khadaffi, may also be driven by sheer momentum.

During the Second World War, planners feared the Southwest Pacific campaign would take on a life of its own beyond the limited objectives it aspired to. The reason was once a bureaucratic effort got started, it kept going and going and going. Such a process might still be alive in Washington. Afraid as they are of failing, politicians demand alternate plans to provide an insurance against complete rebuff. So the balance of probability is that while the campaign in Libya has reached a kind of apparent stasis, the second act is being decided on as this is being written.  Agencies are competing with their rival plans; and apart from events on the ground we are also waiting to see which bureaucratic coalition wins in Washington, or Brussels or NATO headquarters.

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