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Tel Aviv - United States President Barack Obama is in a major predicament over Libya. His lack of enthusiasm for a military campaign against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces, evident in his pointed silence on the issue for most of last week, found new justification on Sunday when the Arab League condemned the killing of "civilians" by Western forces in the initial bombing raids.

A request by the league for a no-fly zone over Libya, made a week ago, was considered one the main sources of international legitimacy for the bombing raids against Gaddafi's army. All of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) opposed the move, as did the African Union. Thus, the token support of the Arab League was all the more important, and when its secretary general (incidentally also one of the front-runners for the Egyptian presidency), Amr Moussa, said on Sunday that "what is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians", this undermined severely the moral foundation of the campaign.

True, the legal basis is quite solid, in the form of a remarkably Byzantine United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which, in the words of Asia Times Online's M K Bhadrakumar "opens up all sorts of dangerous possibilities to stretch the type and scope of military operations".

Still, for an American leader who built much of his foreign policy image in contrast to his predecessor's unilateral interventionism and who received a Nobel Peace Prize practically on a naked promise for "change we can believe in", selective interpretation of legal documents to justify a war with no clear objective or exit strategy is a slippery slope.

Obama came under a lot of pressure to act, and part of this pressure was of his own making. As Senator Joe Lieberman put it in an interview with CNN, "Once the president of the United States says, as President Obama did, that Gaddafi must go, if we don't work with our allies to make sure Gaddafi does go, America's credibility and prestige suffers all over the world."

It is not just prestige that is at stake, though that is important, abroad as well as at home (where Obama badly needs to burnish his foreign policy credentials by showing that he is capable of decisive action). United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was instrumental in swaying the president's opinion last week amid heated internal debates on Libyan intervention, [1] was reportedly worried about another "genocide" in the image of Rwanda - but even that fails to explain the rationale of the American government.

In an article in Foreign Policy titled "What if Qaddafi wins? Then what?" Peter Feaver blasts "the wishful thinking of those who would pretend that the US does not have serious national security interests at stake in the outcome in Libya". Even as he assumes, prior to the events of the past few days, that the American government would decide against intervention, Feaver outlines the potential disastrous consequences of a Gaddafi victory. These include "the humanitarian disaster of a collapsed Libyan economy", "a renewed push for [weapons of mass destruction] by Qaddafi, who will likely view all previous deals as not only null and void but also blunders", "the radicalization of whatever rump rebellion remains" and "the region-wide effects of resurgent authoritarianism on fledgling democratic movements".

Translation: if Gaddafi wins, that would leave a powerful and bitter enemy of the West in North Africa, would unleash a wave of refugees the entire Mediterranean region (including Europe), and would increase support for al-Qaeda among the rebels. Add to these arguments the argument of oil (of which Libya has plenty, a fact that has already cause convulsions on the international oil markets), and we get an intervention.

However, aside from the moral hiccups, there are other major problems with intervention. Most importantly, it lacks a clearly defined objective and exit strategy. "President Obama's speech on the impending war in Libya Friday afternoon was eloquent, passionate and stirring," writes Spencer Ackerman for the Wired blog. "So much so that it was almost easy to overlook the one thing the speech lacked: an end game."

Indeed, it is uncertain what exactly Obama and his allies are hoping to accomplish. The goal of UN resolution 1973 - to protect civilians - is quite limited, and according to one scenario, the intervention countries might settle for a "stalemate" with the Libyan government in Tripoli (the chairman of the United States military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told CBS on Sunday that this was a "possibility").

However, there is also an enormous temptation to try to ouster Gaddafi. In the analysis of American think-tank Stratfor, "The long-term goal, unspoken but well understood, is regime change - displacing the government of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and replacing it with a new regime built around the rebels."

Not having a clear long-term strategy, the military campaign violates the so-called Powell Doctrine, a document designed to assist American military planners to avoid entanglement in prolonged asymmetrical conflicts. The last time an American president - George W Bush - ignored this informal doctrine, he started the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In an article titled "Memo to Madam Secretary: First, Do No Harm", veteran American negotiator Aaron David Miller cautioned last week against repeating such mistakes:

Finding a middle ground between doing too much and not enough to get rid of Qaddafi looks less like solid terrain and more like a slippery slope that could end with America in control of or at least responsible for yet another Arab/Muslim country ... Downsizing US ambitions isn't pretty, but at a time of serious domestic economic dislocation and two ongoing wars, it's smart. And in the case of Libya, never a vital American interest, it's imperative. America is still the world's greatest power, but maybe a little smarter, having learned from the cautionary tales that history and its own current limitations provide.

Current American administration officials such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon reportedly took a similar stance in the discussions.

Indeed, Iraq is quickly turning into something of a nightmare scenario for Obama in Libya. Parallels with both Persian Gulf wars, and especially the second one, are growing - and not only because a blunder in Libya could damage Obama's relationship with the entire Muslim world, much in the manner Iraq ultimately tarnished George W Bush's. This would be especially true if the coalition against Gaddafi lost its international legitimacy and started to be perceived widely as a clumsy replica of Bush's "coalition of the willing".

There are numerous structural similarities between the situations in Libya and Iraq. These start with two incredibly fragmented societies ruled with an iron fist by eccentric dictators and continue all the way through the intertwined motifs of weapons of mass destruction, oil and bringing democracy to the Middle East. It should be noted that Western analysts, who by and large assumed 10 days ago that Gaddafi was a goner, had similar troubles understanding how Saddam Hussein stayed in power after his devastating losses in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Gaddafi is borrowing directly from Saddam Hussein's manual against air campaigns. "As a skilled tyrant who does not shy away from utilizing the means that allowed Saddam Hussein and his regime to survive the first American offensive against Iraq in 1991, [Gaddafi] is transporting large groups of civilians to major air bases in order to serve as human shields," writes respected Israeli analyst Ron Ben-Yishai. "He is also sending his tanks and armored personnel carriers into the heart of civilian neighborhoods at the outskirts of rebel-controlled towns, so that Western jets concerned about harming innocent civilians would refrain from striking Libya's armor."

By all accounts, the Libyan leader is well prepared for an intervention, and stands a similar chance to his Iraqi former counterpart to survive anything short of a full-scale ground incursion. He has reportedly consolidated his grip over the western part of the country, including by securing the loyalty of the most populous tribes, the Warfallah, the Megariha and the Tarhuna.

He is subjected to massive fire power and might incur formidable losses. However, past experience shows that air campaigns often end up building consensus around besieged dictators. This may even affect rebel morale significantly - in the early days of the uprising, some rebel forces had even threatened to unite with Gaddafi against any foreign intervention.

Even as the opposition gradually warmed up to Western aerial support (and eventually pleaded for it), a British special forces team on a "friendly" undercover mission experienced these strong nationalist sentiments first-hand when it was arrested and promptly deported by the rebels. It should be noted, furthermore, that there are few signs of genuine unity among the opposition leaders and militias.

Gaddafi, who has already announced his readiness to "die like a martyr", is reportedly arming the population in the western part of the country en masse. He even has a doomsday scenario in store, also out of Saddam's cookbook, but with a distinct African twist that he has mastered during the years of support for brutal rebel movements in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone

If he is toppled, he - or whatever is left of his forces - could unleash a bloody civil war replete with guerrilla tactics and savage murders and mutilations of civilians. Over time, the carnage could rival that in Rwanda; the conflict would take on a life of its own and would either force the foreign powers out in a humiliating defeat (something similar happened to the Americans in Somalia in 1993) or keep them busy, and bleeding, for a long time.

Moreover, he could strike deep inside Europe and the United States, for example by organizing and financing terror attacks. This is also something he is skilled at, he is wealthy enough to be able to do it, and he has already threatened instability in the entire Mediterranean.

However, he probably would not need to use the doomsday contingency plans. Wars are fought over perceptions; the outcome of a war is decided not so much on the battlefield as in the minds and hearts of observers. Gaddafi has already started playing a masterful ceasefire game, and he is cultivating several narratives that he could use, as needed, in order to frame the situation favorably at a later moment.

The war over perceptions is a tricky endeavor, and the international coalition's failure to formulate realistic goals will prove costly. For now, all Gaddafi needs to do to win is survive - especially since Obama has ordered him to go. This echoes the situation in Iraq in 1991, when Saddam was perceived by many as a winner in Operation Desert Storm, simply because he beat the expectations and was able to stay in power.

As mentioned above, he has a good chance to survive anything short of a ground incursion by foreign forces. According to a separate Stratfor analysis:

Gadhafi's forces have demonstrated that they retain considerable strength and loyalty to the regime. That means that even with coalition air strikes taking out armor and artillery, there will still be forces loyal to Gadhafi inside any urban center the rebels might encounter in a westward advance, meaning that the rebels would be forced to fight a dedicated force dug into built up areas while operating on extended lines, a difficult tactical and operational challenge for even a coherent and proficient military force.

So even though the coalition air strikes have since shifted the military balance, the fundamental challenges for the rebels to organize and orchestrate a coherent military offensive remain unchanged.

At a later stage, once the civilian casualties and the costs of the foreign military campaign mount, Gaddafi would probably go on the offensive and claim that the intervention has violated its own raison d'etre - to save the lives of civilians. In this respect, Sunday's Arab League statement was a very positive sign for him.

He can play the victim by pointing out that his offers of a ceasefire was ignored. He made two such offers - one on Friday, which he claimed the rebels violated, and one on Sunday, a day after the aerial campaign started. The coalition forces promptly played into his hands by ignoring the offer and proceeding to bomb a building in his residential compound in Tripoli on Sunday night (at least 300 of his supporters, many of them women and children, were reported nearby, but early Monday morning there was no word of casualties).

He would then proceed to portray himself as a brave leader of a popular struggle against colonialism. He has already started to work on this image, for example by claiming that the West cares for nothing but Libyan oil, and has had spectacular success. It probably would not take a huge blunder by the Western-led coalition for the BRIC countries to offer him diplomatic support; not only that, but some of his loudest former critics, for example Iran, have started to take an anti-Western stance.

As Bhadrakumar has noted, prior to the intervention, the United States and Iran found themselves strikingly close in their positions on Libya. After the aerial campaign began, however, Iran shifted its tone dramatically. "The records and the actions of the dominant countries in occupying oppressed countries means their intentions in such moves are always in doubt," a spokesman of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Ramin Mehmanparast, said in an interview with the Iranian Students' News Agency.

Gaddafi even has a handy narrative he could use in case a detente with the Americans and the Europeans begins to shape up. All through the conflict he has insisted that he is fighting al-Qaeda, and this could potentially serve as a basis for reconciliation with the West (particularly if reports that some elements of al-Qaeda are indeed active among his opponents turn out to be correct).

This latter scenario currently seems unlikely, but Obama might settle for it in case the air campaign looses its legitimacy and fails to oust Gaddafi. Some have speculated about a "Kosovo model" designed to weaken Gaddafi, to split up his territory and to keep him in check. There are major uncertainties related to this outcome, and there appears to be little appetite for it among the coalition, but right now it is among few good alternatives for Obama to avoid a Bush in Iraq moment.

The American administration appears to be drawing on the Kosovo paradigm at least in one way: it is preparing to transfer responsibility for Libya to its European and Persian Gulf allies. Since the start of the discussions on a no-fly zone, it has insisted that it would act only in a broad coalition, and, moreover, that it would not have a "pre-eminent role" in that coalition.

It is worth noting that France, rather then the United States, initiated the aerial campaign on Saturday. On Sunday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates revealed said that the US expected to turn over "primary responsibility" for the campaign to others within days.

Unfortunately, dumping a strategic quagmire on one's allies hardly counts as a good exit strategy. Britain and France alone (or even in coalition with Canada, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Spain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) can hardly accomplish what the United States is intimidated by. And even though Obama might deflect some responsibility in this way, the bill would ultimately come around to him.


1. Obama Takes Hard Line With Libya After Shift by Clinton , The New York Times, March 19.