x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

In Libya, the world's sheriff badge is losing it's lustre

As President Obama has made clear in Libya, the United States doesn't do regime change anymore. It simply can't afford the sort of military adventurism that was the hallmark of the Bush years.

When the Obama administration joined Britain and France in initiating military action in Libya, some on the anti-war left protested that it was another intervention to take down a troublesome regime and cement American hegemony in an oil-rich Arab country.

Too little, too late, and too namby-pamby, complained hawkish conservatives. Regime change should be the mission's stated objective, and the requisite military resources and tactics applied to the problem.

It should be abundantly clear two weeks into the campaign, however, that this is not that kind of war.

The military operation, to the chagrin of the hawks, has been limited to enforcing a UN Security Council resolution to protect civilians. Having enabled the no-fly zone by destroying Libya's air defences, the US quickly dialed back its own involvement, handing command to Nato, whose leaders made clear that regime change was not its objective.

Nor was the handover to Nato simply a fig-leaf to create greater legitimacy for another US air campaign. Most of the ground-attack sorties now are flown by European air forces, and nothing demonstrated more clearly the US reluctance to get involved in a military campaign to destroy the Qaddafi regime than its withdrawal from the mission of the two key types of ground attack aircraft necessary to implement such a mission - the A-10 Warthog tank-killing plane, and the C-130 gunship.

Hopes that Nato air power restraining the regime from using air power and other heavy weaponry would enable the rebels to storm Col Qaddafi's citadel have been dashed by the reality on the ground. The regime's forces, once they adopted more mobile-warfare tactics, have largely had the rebels' rag-tag army on the back foot, despite Western air power overhead.

And two friendly-fire incidents in which Nato planes inadvertently killed rebel fighters simply highlighted rebel frustration with a western alliance that is showing no inclination to finish off Col Qaddafi for them. Nobody is under any illusions that the rebels are capable of doing the job themselves.

The war on the ground, in fact, has reached a stalemate. That was the conclusion of the initial US commander of the operation, General Carter Ham, in testimony to Congress last Wednesday. A stalemate may be just fine for many UN Security Council players and even Nato members, who saw the mission's goal as simply to protect Libyan civilians and stop the war as quickly as possible.

Indeed, a stalemate in which each side recognised their inability to destroy the other would probably help Turkey's efforts to broker a cease-fire under which Col Qaddafi's forces would withdraw from besieged cities and open humanitarian corridors, and political negotiations would begin over holding democratic elections.

The regime and the rebels are currently too far apart to agree on a cease-fire, but the key precondition for a truce is a military stalemate. And that's exactly where Libya is right now. British proposals that Arab states hire western mercenary firms to pull rebel military forces into shape demonstrate just how reluctant western countries are to commit their own ground forces.

The conduct of the war, thus far, makes it hard to take seriously the idea that this is a predator war for power and resources. If anything, the fact that Mr Obama has refused to commit the resources necessary to topple Col Qaddafi gives more ammunition to the complaints of the hawks - and the rebels themselves - that the Obama administration is refusing to use the military power at its disposal.

Not that Mr Obama minds. His America doesn't do regime change, a decision made not out of some sort of pacifism, but because it simply can't afford the sort of military adventurism that was the hallmark of the Bush years. It's worth noting that the most ardent opponent of getting involved in Libya at all was Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who speaks for the Pentagon - and who also happens to be a Republican, although of the party's realist branch.

US global power is waning, not simply because of the rise of others but also because its flagging economy diminishes its ability to project power abroad. Apropos soft power, it should also be noted that the Republicans want to cut all foreign aid, except to Israel.

So, while most Americans would derive great satisfaction from using their vast military resources to take down the Libyan tyrant, the last thing their political and military leaders want is to be left "owning" the Libyan power vacuum that Col Qaddafi's removal would create. They've already got two "nation-building" missions under way in Iraq and Afghanistan. (And make no mistake, Libya - a personality-cult patronage state that has collapsed into a series of armed bands - will have to be rebuilt from scratch with the presence of outside forces.)

The sheriff's badge has lost its lustre, and Mr Obama doesn't want everyone in every global trouble-spot to have his cellphone number. Let the Europeans and Arabs deal with Libya.

Mr Obama will certainly take right-wing flak if the Nato-led effort fails to oust Col Qaddafi, but he'll find that far preferable to going into his reelection next year having committed US forces to a third nation-building mission in a Muslim country.

Those in Europe and elsewhere who complained a decade ago of the aggressive unilateralism of the "hyperpower" are increasingly getting what they wished for - a United States that no longer tries to run the world, but instead seeks multilateral cooperation and looks to others to solve problems in their neighbourhoods.

Libya looks so different to previous military campaigns in part because it's the first new war of the era of American decline.

 

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Follow him on Twitter @TonyKaron