Streetwise Professor

March 30, 2011

Cynical and Ineffectual: Not a Winning Combination

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:22 pm

A couple of days ago there was optimism when Libyan rebels raced across the desert chasing Khaddafy’s forces out of several towns.   Today there is pessimism as the rebels raced back the other way, chased by government troops.

People need to get a grip; this is likely to be the way things will go, absent a major shift in tactics by the US and NATO.  Those with a passing familiarity to the campaigns in Libya in 1941-1942 will recognize the pattern.  Then British and Commonwealth forces would race west chasing fleeing Germans and Italians, only to race east, chased by the Afrika Korps.  Back and forth they went, repeatedly.

The desert offered no dominating topographical features that could be defended easily.  There was always an open flank (except when the British dug in at El Alamein, with the Med on their right and the Qattara Depression (an impassible morass of quicksand) on their left.  Given the open flank and the lack of defensible terrain, it was nigh on to impossible for a retreating force to make a stand; the attacking force would simply outflank any defending troops, and away they would go. But the advancing force would soon outrun its logistics, and the defenders would fall back on their bases; the attack would stall; and soon back they would go the other way.

Things aren’t exactly the same today.  The rebels are nothing like the Eighth Army, and the Libyan government troops are certainly nothing like the Afrika Korps, or even the hapless Italians.  US (and NATO) air forces are light years beyond anything seen under Ritchie or Cunningham or Montgomery or Rommel.  But the fundamentals aren’t all that different.  Which means that unless a serious ground force with serious logistical support goes into Libya, the stalemate is almost certain to continue.  NATO/US airpower can prevent Khaddafy from overrunning the rebels: when his armor is in the open, it is very vulnerable, and when advancing, his logistical tail is one big target.  But when Khaddafy falls back on his strongpoints, even with the support of airpower, the rebels cannot dislodge him.  A far more violent and sustained air campaign couldn’t pry Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991; it took heavy forces (VII Corps and the 1st Marine Division) to bash him out after his troops had been pummeled from the air.  The rebels have nothing close to that capacity.

The prospect for such a stalemate is leading the allied leaders to scramble for solutions.  Such as covert actions against Khaddafy, and arming the rebels.  But the likelihood that covert actions against Khaddafy will result in his death and ouster are close to zero.  It’s been tried many, many times before–and failed almost every time.  Self-protection is what dictators excel at.  How many times did the CIA try to kill Castro?  Saddam?

Insofar as arming the rebels is concerned–please.  There is no way to provide them with the combat power and training to make them a credible offensive force.  At best, arming them would just guarantee a protracted standoff.  And since when did arming combatants in a civil war constitute a humanitarian intervention?  Just look at all the wars in Africa which descended into horrific, indecisive bloodlettings when the opposing sides were supplied with arms by outsiders.

These plans are a confession of strategic bankruptcy.  The only decisive alternative–a robust ground intervention–has been ruled out.  The current operation can prevent a rebel defeat, but cannot a secure a rebel victory.  So the allies are casting about for anything that could possibly work.  But possible is not anything close to probable.  The most likely outcome is a grueling and indecisive civil war.  Again–that’s humanitarian?

Not to mention the possibility for blowback–given that many of those who may receive arms are dyed-in-the-wool jihadis.  Not foreseeing the possibility that Islamic radicals could turn on the US after we supported them in Afghanistan in the 1980s is understandable, and perhaps even excusable given the stakes in the conflict.  But since the stakes here are much lower, and since we have learned by hard experience the dangers of arming those who are ideologically opposed to us in order to achieve a tactical gain, arming the Libyan rebels is hard to understand and far harder to excuse.

I’ve heard for 30+ years how the US should avoid another Viet Nam, even when the analogy was completely inapt.  Well, incrementalism driven by a judgment that the only approach that is likely to be decisive is unacceptable was exactly the fatal error in Viet Nam.  So the latter day incarnation of the best and the brightest seem hell bent on doing it again; the analogy seems far more relevant now than in ’91, for instance, when it was heard ad nauseum.

One last thing.  Obama is reported to have signed an intelligence finding authorizing CIA support of the rebels with the possible objective of overthrowing Khaddafy.  As I just noted, this is unlikely to lead to anything more than a standoff in the desert.  But the cynicism is rather breathtaking.  Obama denies that regime change is an objective.  He genuflects to the UN, and claims that the US and its allies are acting subject to its authority–but the UN did not authorize regime change.  The gap between word and deed is vast.

If the man who ran for president on a platform of peace and transparency and deference to international bodies is capable of such a cynical betrayal of all of these, what that he says can be believed?

Wretchard has it right:

The entire theme of the administration’s Libyan policy is “we don’t need no steenkin’ badges”. Not from the Congress, not even from the UN Security Council. For authority they can just write a little secret finding and as long as Washington insiders let him get away with it, it’s a done deal. Hillary can reinterpret the UN arms embargo to whatever she wants it to mean. Things are infinitely elastic, which is to say, they can do anything they want. It marks the final emergence of an incipient aristocracy from the cocoon of a Republic. It has no obligations to anyone. Not even to tell the truth to itself.

Those who believe themselves to be morally transcendent can rationalize any means to achieve the ends they have chosen–because they have chosen them.  The rules don’t apply to them.  Such hubris brings nemesis.

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  1. It looks more and more like the whole “rebellion” thing was dreamt up by Sarko.

    Comment by So? — March 30, 2011 @ 10:17 pm

  2. I’m pretty sure that the rebellion was done because the people in Libya, after decades of repression, lost their fear of Khadaffy by being inspired by events in Tunisa and Egypt. In other words, the obvious interpretation.

    If the intervention had been done, or perhaps even merely discussed publicly, several weeks ago, it may have been enough to convince the fence sitters to either join the rebels or at least do nothing to help Khadaffy. But that time is now over. People have made their choices.

    The problem, of course, is that the rebels are irregulars. They have no organization or discipline. It’s hard to win wars that way. I think Jerry Pournelle said it best on his website, “What are they going to do once they’ve fired all their ammunition into the air?” The only way they can win is to turn themselves into a real fighting force which will take time and training. It’s dubious if they will have enough time, but it’s possible. Training is much more difficult, unless Western special forces arrive (either through a secret arrival of official government forces, or by private military contractors – I suspect the latter will be done with tacit approval of France, UK, and US).

    While there were humanitarian reasons involve, I think it’s pretty obvious this is the equivalent of the Spanish Civil War. This won’t end until one side wins, and for better or for worse we’ve made our bet. If it becomes a stalemate now, in 2-3 years time at the most, this will be over. Our best strategy is to remember that we’ve attached our interests directly to the fate of the rebels. Better to make what leverage we can to influence the rebels to our side, as opposed to Al Qaeda’s side, by both being more supportive in real terms, and letting them know what we won’t accept as the price of our support. If they win, they are going to need foeign aid, and Al Qaeda won’t be the ones providing it, and they know this.

    While things don’t look good for the rebels, neither do things like good for Khaddafy. He’s been totally ostracized and isolated by the world community, abandoned even by other scumbag regimes. He cannot use any airpower, and the rebels now have effective artillery in terms of US airstrikes. His own capabilities will be degraded the longer this lasts, while he knows the rebels will likely receive support at some point. Defections from his regime have begun again. The next few weeks and months are critical.

    Comment by Chris Durnell — March 31, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

  3. “One Russian asks another.
    – Why are they bombing Ghadaffi?
    – He repressed his people with free food, cheap credit and 14 cent petrol.
    – Is that so?! Thank God we have “United Russia”. They’d never let such a thing happen here!”

    Moral. Welfare corrupts. Spend your money on the military instead.

    Comment by So? — March 31, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

  4. Yes, the murder, the torture, the lack of economic freedom, that saying something might mean they are never seen again, the general fear people lived under, had nothing to do with it. It was all about them being spoiled.

    Comment by Chris Durnell — March 31, 2011 @ 6:31 pm

  5. The uprising so far has been a bunch of clowns posing for the camera. Compared with his neighbourhood, Ghadaffi is an angel (to his own people).

    Comment by So? — March 31, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

  6. @Chris–The Spanish Civil War was a huge humanitarian tragedy. Two or three years of that is a pretty appalling prospect.

    I’d also note that what was necessary to end the stalemate in Spain was the intervention of foreign forces.

    Re irregulars–today US military people testified that there are probably less than 1K experienced military people among the rebels. They aren’t going to accomplish anything. The time it would take to create a credible force makes resolution even in a 2-3 year time frame unlikely.

    Re we’ve chosen sides–today’s news suggests there are even doubts about that. NATO has threatened to bomb the rebels because they have engaged in atrocities against civilians in the towns they’ve taken.

    Re Khaddafy’s isolation. Saddam was isolated and ostracized for over a decade, and would have hung on for decades more if we hadn’t gone all Patton on him in ’03. Saddam effectively corrupted those who were supposed to be ostracizing him with oil money (and oil-for-food money). If he hangs on, Khaddafy has a good chance of doing the same. The Italians and the French can be a very venal and cynical lot. Khaddafy would also be able to play the Castro Mariel Boatlift Gambit–constantly threatening the Italians with a wave of immigrants.

    No. If he doesn’t go horizontal very soon, he’ll survive and continue his depredations against the Libyan people.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 31, 2011 @ 9:57 pm

  7. @SWP: “I’d also note that what was necessary to end the stalemate in Spain was the intervention of foreign forces.

    Hitler and Stalin, right?

    Comment by Ostap Bender — March 31, 2011 @ 11:22 pm

  8. Well, actually after the USSR had demanded the entire national reserves of Republican Spain in Gold in exchange for assisting (read sending the NKVD and killing anyone who did not toe the party line…including most of the best fighting formations) the republicans, once the Gold ran out so did Soviet assistance.

    Meanwhile the Germans and Italians aided the Nationalists effectively for free.

    Comment by Andrew — April 4, 2011 @ 5:30 am

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