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Today, Muammar Gaddafi controls the northwestern corner of Libya, and forces loyal to him with the most powerful weapons of the Libyan army are fighting off a slowly advancing popular revolution that has liberated most of the country to the east.
How might U.S. policymakers want the Libyan Revolution to turn out? What could they do to tilt the odds in favor of their preference? Would any of this be good or bad for the Libyans, and for the U.S. public generally? What follows is a reasonably logical speculation on some potential U.S. actions to influence the course of the Libyan Revolution. The most useful result of these speculations is the delineation of some possible outcomes, and some cautions.
The U.S. will want to to be on good terms with the future Libyan government, for the obvious reason of access to its oil, and to influence the direction of future Libyan spending, preferably toward U.S. commercial interests but also away from regional politics (any pan-Arabic umma, including Palestine) that threatens the ever-so-defensive Israelis.
Clearly, the time of Gaddafi is over; at best he will cause a period of bloody civil war in western Libya. When this will end, and how the country will be divided between the opposing forces, will be determined by the quantity of arms and ammunition each side has available. Each side can resupply by selling the oil production it controls, and buying arms from dealers capable of supplying that belligerent.
Clearly, the balance of power could be noticeably affected by subtle inputs crafted as arms embargoes and weapons sales. One thinks of the effect on the Spanish Civil War of the British, French and American embargo of arms to Spain, the Russian arms sales to the Spanish Republic, and the arms sales by fascist Germany and Italy to Franco’s rebel forces. No doubt, one can point to numerous examples since of foreign influence in civil wars without overt invasion.
It might seem easy for the U.S. to “knock off” Gaddafi with a few aerial bombardments launched from an aircraft carrier, as a gift to the Libyan government of the future. But such an act would not sit well with many U.S. client dictators, especially in the Islamic Petroleum Arc from Morocco through the Levant and the Persian Gulf. The U.S. needs a subtle strategy to both win an acceptance (which cannot be assumed permanent) by the rebellious Libyan public, who will clearly influence the makeup of the immediate post-war government, while at the same time retaining the confidence (which can never be assumed complete) of its client ruling elites in the lands of Islam and oil.
Clearly, any introduction of U.S. and even NATO troops would be a disastrous mistake. These would all too soon blow up too many civilians, and become targets for Libyan bullets from all sides. Also, the Gaddafi forces would probably experience an upsurge of recruitment from jihadis inspired by Libyan nationalism and defense-of-Islam anti-American feeling. And that would frustrate resolution of the original problem (i.e., getting rid of Gaddafi without getting anyone else too upset).
Enforcing no-fly zones on Gaddafi’s forces is logistically and politically close to a ground invasion, so it, too, is a likely counterproductive strategy. The Gaddafi forces (mercenaries?, certainly they must have been promised great rewards to save the dictator) have probably used helicopters gun ships to attack rebel (liberation) forces. It would be difficult (and expensive) for NATO fighter-bomber aircraft (from carriers at sea?) to constantly patrol Gaddafi-controlled territory so as to be in position to quickly shoot down any helicopter gunships launched against rebel positions. This is simply a slower and more painstaking process of piecemeal bombing of Gaddafi’s military, still with the hazard of civilian casualties, and begs the question: why not just launch a major aerial bombing assault and eliminate the Gaddafi belligerency quickly.
So, our thinking must proceed. A diplomatic approach for removing Gaddafi, by negotiating his renunciation of power and his future personal security (and wealth?), and the commanding of his troops to cease fire (and surrender?), through the mediation of a third party (Venezuela’s Chavez?, or an Arab League or UN diplomat?) might seem ideal, but could be engaged in disingenuously, drawing out a bloody effort to gain militarily. From the U.S. point of view, and probably from that of the Libyan liberation forces, a dead Gaddafi is preferred. So, while the diplomatic approach offers both belligerents some potential benefits (and relieves many anxieties outside Libya), it also has inherent psychological obstacles to its own proceedings, from both perspectives.
We arrive again at the “Spanish Civil War problem,” the supply and/or denial of arms to a particular belligerent. The reflexive moral position of some, that foreign nations should remain legalistically neutral by not supplying any arms to either Libyan belligerent, is simply a choice to favor the Libyan belligerent with the largest (and/or most powerful) present supply of arms, the surest access to oil revenue, and the greatest number of foreign allies and arms suppliers.
Is it evident that all other nations are willing to act in concert to neither supply any Libyan side with arms, and to also patrol all Libyan borders to prevent the smuggling of arms to either belligerent? If so, then such world unity would be a vote for the Libyan side with the biggest arsenal and potential pocketbook at present, and the “knock out” will occur when the weaker side finally runs out of ammunition and credit.
It is doubtful that all foreigners will be willing to watch this grim and possibly long bloody denouement without an urge to “stop it.” Thus, it is unlikely that a perfect world consensus for “nonintervention” (a word that forever echos the Spanish Civil War) will occur in practice (it may in words), and if this is the case, then those who intervene will be affecting the odds of possible outcomes. Can U.S. policymakers allow a fluid political situation in North Africa (or anywhere) be affected and possibly determined by foreign influences, without getting involved? We can assume that the consensus opinion of U.S. policymakers — their preferred outcome in Libya — will be acted upon, and the only question is: how?
We can speculate that U.S. reconnaissance satellites, aircraft and ships will image the movement of Gaddafi and liberation military formations and military and resupply craft, as well as record and decode (as needed, and if possible) communications. These data would help quantify the military situations of the two camps. U.S. space and aerial reconnaissance, and data exchanges with NATO allies with intelligence assets in Africa (in particular France, Italy and the U.K.) could quantify the extent of arms resupply and smuggling across all of Libya’s borders, and identify the suppliers. These data could help to enforce an arms embargo, or to contribute anonymously to a resupply channel for a favored belligerent.
Assuming a US-led NATO consensus to disfavor Gaddafi, but subtly, so as to keep from ruffling the nervous client Sheiks, Kings, Presidents and Premiers in the Islam Petroleum Arc (and client dictators generally), then a strategy of feeding useful supplies to the Libyan liberation forces anonymously through private third party arms suppliers, while quietly disrupting Gaddafi’s resupply channels (NATO special forces destroying arms caravans from sub-Sahara Africa?, diplomacy to establish an embargo at sea?) would seem best (for the policy objectives attributed to the US-NATO).
The types of military equipment that might be sent to the Libyan rebels (unattributable, from the world market like former Warsaw Pact hardware, or Iranian, Chinese or North Korean hardware) would be small arms and machine guns, light artillery (like anti-tank weapons), ammunition and ordnance, field communications with coding electronics, armored vehicles, shoulder-fired missiles, tactical radars, (these last two for shooting down attack helicopters; small or short-range truck-mounted anti-aircraft missiles might seem too risky of future problems to pass along), and supplies for troops: uniforms, boots, protective gear (helmets and vests), medical supplies, field rations, camping and feeding gear. The right mix of supplies would depend on the specifics of the military situation to be resolved. Given the high morale and apparently good supply of manpower for the liberation forces, they might only need a moderate infusion of basic light infantry equipment to proceed to victory after a short campaign.
Perhaps such a strategy is easily within the capabilities of the U.S. and NATO, and perhaps it has an excellent chance of success. But, would it actually advance the U.S. interests, and, would it be a benefit to Libya? Recall that in being successful the strategy hides the influences of U.S. intentions. Libya would appear to have ended its civil war on its own, with the Gaddafi camp eliminated. There might be some in the new Libyan government with an inkling of the U.S. role, and perhaps even a positive feeling about that. But a widely popular attitude of pro-Americanism would be quite unlikely.
We could tally the possible benefits this way: a quicker end to the war would mean preventing further casualties, a very good thing; removing Gaddafi from power is a generally acknowledged desideratum; allowing the Libyan popular revolution to organize a new constitution and democratic government is a generally acknowledged good; the apparent absence of U.S. interference during the liberation struggle would be a good thing for everyone concerned, and would leave a reasonable entrée for the U.S. to ingratiate itself diplomatically with the new Libyan government.
The pitfalls for the U.S. circulate about the word “apparent” in the previous sentence. The U.S. will encounter future resentments and resistances to the extent that its “interference” in the Libyan revolution — however this is interpreted — is detected. The safest course from this perspective is to do nothing, to just wait it out. And if Gaddafi hangs on, then the U.S. (and everyone else) just accepts him back into the head-of-state club (naturally, he will sniff around afterwards to see who helped or hurt him when he was fighting for this political and actual life, and against his own people).
So, my suspicion is that the U.S. will use its technical resources to find the minimum number of straws it can surreptitiously place on the Gaddafi military’s back to have it crack under the weight of the revolutionary onslaught. Then U.S. diplomats will try charming U.S. interests into the new Libyan government’s esteem, with the belief that it is now made up of reasonable (at least not insane) people, and in the hopes that the subtle influences introduced by the U.S. into the Libyan struggle will not bubble up in some Wikileaks fashion, to cause problematical resentments and future difficulties in getting its way.
A final caution for us here is to realize that nothing prevents our governments from trying to act in ways that we in our logical exercises have found to be obviously harmful and counterproductive.
Let us hope for a quick and complete victory by the liberation forces, and for a rapid formalization of the Libyan popular revolution into a democratic government that authentically represents the will of the Libyan people.
MANUEL GARCIA, Jr., once a physicist, is now a lazy househusband who writes out his analyses of physical or societal problems or interactions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org