Libya: Will Air War Become an Occupation? (Part Two of a Series)
(Pictured: Libyans seeking refuge in Tunisia.)
Obama: The U.S. Is Bombing Libya But This Isn't War
The U.S. Congress's informal protest over Obama's sidestepping the War Powers Act concerning U.S. participation in the NATO bombing campaign in Libya included elements of the surreal. First, the president was charged with violating the law in what could be classified as an impeachable act; then in spite of this slap in the face, Congress, showing its more genuine colors, turned around and voted to approve the funding of the U.S. military action in Libya for the next year, suggesting that when all is said and done, the protest vote didn't amount to much.
The Obama Administration's response to the criticism was, if one thinks about it, something approaching pathetic. No, the Administration need not get congressional approval, the argument went, because the United States does not have troops 'on the ground' and without troops on the ground, the United States is not at war with Libya. It appears that Congress lamely accepted this logic.
Actually we do not know that the United States does not have troops on the ground. Are the Special Forces, whose mission is secret, involved? Are there U.S. military advisors there? But the bombing missions are not considered war. Al Qaeda did not have 'troops on the ground' when they sent hijacked civilian airliners careening into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which Congress labeled an act of war.
Using the cover of humanitarian interventionalism, – it seems to play well in Peoria – the United States has launched deadly airstrikes against the Libyan military; provided military aid to the Libyan rebels; pressed sanctions against Libya, froze its assets and called for the overthrow of Khadaffi. According to the Obama Administration and the president himself, these acts do not constitute 'war', thus the War Powers Act does not apply.
Looks like war. Tastes like war. Smells like war, but if Obama says it's not war, I guess it just can't be war.
But what if the United States and/or its NATO allies bring the air war down to the ground, and introduce ground troops? If they are American, will Obama seek the authorization as required under the War Powers Act, or when the time comes, will he seek another 'out' from Congressional scrutiny? Out of the question? Sending U.S. ground troops to Libya is going beyond a line the Obama Administration will not cross? Will what begins as humanitarian interventionalism morph into permanent U.S./NATO military bases in Libya?
German, Russian Press Worried the U.S./NATO Planning to Send Ground Troops to Libya
Articles are beginning to appear in German and Russian press suggesting that there might be plans afoot for NATO, through various means, to introduce ground troops in the fall into both Libya and Syria (Syrian situation will be treated in a forthcoming piece) to accelerate the overthrow of Khadaffi in Libya and to 'support the process of reform' in Syria. Both U.S. and NATO spokespeople deny these claims as do a number of Middle East experts asked to comment. Given recent history (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia), such denials should not be taken too seriously.
Still, the prospect of NATO ground troops in the Middle East cannot be written off so easily. Nor would it be especially surprising that the United States and its NATO allies would try to downplay or deny the allegations. The arguments against a more direct U.S. led military intervention are weighty enough. The U.S. is already overextended with its open military commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq; its less publicized activities in Yemen and Somalia. It cannot afford – either economically or politically – to open another military front at this time, especially with an upcoming presidential election. Recent surveys suggest that here in the United States, people are tiring of U.S. foreign military intervention and their spiraling costs, rightly associating the money wasted on war with funds that could be better used here at home. True enough.
But there are counter arguments of what the United States could gain strategically from upping the ante and sending in ground troops to Libya. Those who write the possibility off as frivolous do so at their own risk. There are those within the Obama Administration who argue for a kind of Shock Doctrine approach to the current Arab Revolt, i.e., to use the current crisis in the Middle East and North Africa to ultimately reshape and strengthen the U.S. position in the region. The United States might have been caught unprepared for the uprising, but it is still possible to manage it and even for the U.S. to come out 'ahead' strategically. The signs that more direct military intervention is at least on the drawing board are growing and with them, increased alarm in the international press.
Deutsche Welle ran a piece on June 27, 2011, 'Rumors For U.S. Plans for Libya, Syria Cause Concern,' detailing the extent of the U.S. naval build up in the Eastern Mediterranean and enhanced activity at Fort Hood, Texas where military preparations are allegedly gathering steam. The article also notes the changing nature of the NATO involvement, more 'mission leap' than mission creep.' An article in the Russian press on June 29, 2011, entitled 'Democracy By Order Of Washington,' doesn't give details but ends with a note of concern: “The next plan of the U.S is the redrawing of the maps of North Africa, the Middle and Near East. America is counting on the support of its most loyal allies.”
NATO's role has already morphed from securing a no-fly zone over Libyan air space – a somewhat defensive step to defend civilians – to the more offensive operations of targeting Khadaffi's forces, attempting to assassinate him by cruise missile attack and the introduction of French and British attack helicopters. The goal of the mission has also shifted from protecting civilians from attacks by pro-Khadaffi forces to regime change – a euphemism for overthrowing Khadaffi. But then once wars start, they tend to have their own merciless logic, don't they?
Not many more conceptual shifts are needed to defend the introduction of ground troops, especially if the military stalemate on the ground in Libya continues. The longer Khadaffi can hold out, the more sympathy he has been able to garner, especially in Africa and the Middle East, complicating the NATO mission and its humanitarian cover. At a certain point, NATO might feel mounting pressure to move towards sending ground troops to break the stalemate, of course, under the cover of an increasingly cynical 'humanitarian intervention' excuse.
Ground Troops or Not, Will NATO Set up an "Enduring" Military Base in Libya?
Tactically, it would be much simpler for the United States and NATO if the Libyan rebels can overthrow Khadaffi without NATO sending troops but it might not be possible. So while it might be possible for NATO to avoid sending ground troops, the notion that it simply won't happen or can't happen is becoming less and less tenable – the opinions of experts aside. Whether Khadaffi is overthrown with or without sending NATO ground troops, the strategic implications of a 'post Khadaffi' Libya are beginning to come into focus.
Should Khadaffi's rule be overthrown one way or another, any rebel government would be exceedingly weak and could not rule without support and 'supervision' by its NATO 'allies'. The end game could, in many ways, resemble what has been played out in Iraq.
- For starters, there will be a much tighter control of Libyan oil and the profits thereof by Western oil companies. That has already started. In the areas it controls, the rebels are already selling oil to Western companies at rock bottom prices to pay for arms and supplies. Western hold over Libyan oil will tighten. OPEC will be weaker, etc.
- The likelihood of permanent NATO/US military presence – excuse me – 'enduring' military bases in Libya is a more than likely possibility regardless if ground troops are introduced or not. If NATO ground troops are introduced, there simply will be some pretext for them to stay, in the name of supporting the rebel government. There is the possibility that even if NATO ground troops are not necessary to overthrow Khadaffi the rebel government, almost certain to be shaky – will invite them in anyway as advisors in one capacity or another. Regardless the presence will be substantial.
Redrawing the Political Map of North Africa, Strategic Considerations
A NATO permanent military presence in Libya would in many ways be the beginning of redrawing the map of North Africa – as the Russian press piece cited above alleges. Such a presence would have a number of potentially profound consequences, among them:
- Within Libyan context it would prevent, at all costs, any move to re-instate Khadaffi or those close to him to power. Such a presence would go far to insuring a 'U.S.-friendly' government would be ruling Libya and its sizeable amounts of low sulphur oil for a long time into the foreseeable future
- The US and NATO would be in a position to monitor – if not manage – the Arab Revolt in its strongest manifestations – Tunisia and Egypt. Placed squarely between the two countries, a U.S. military presence in Libya could be easily mobilized to counter political developments Washington finds objectionable. This is not insignificant as, remember how, events that started in 'little Tunisia' exploded region wide and were for several month seemingly beyond U.S. influence
- On a broader scale, a NATO military presence in Libya becomes an important springboard for the alliance in Africa, a continent whose strategic mineral resources, oil and gas cannot be underestimated. Competition for these resources between Europe and the USA on the one hand, India and China on the other will only intensify in the years to come. It is noteworthy (as mentioned in the first part of this series) that Khadaffi's Libya sells 60% of its oil to China, a situation certain to change should Khadaffi be removed
- There have been strong tensions inside NATO with the United States trying to internationalize security operations (under Washington's direction), with Afghanistan being a kind of test case for taking the alliance outside of Europe and making into a worldwide police force. Although NATO reps claim the contrary, within the coalition there has been strong reservations and opposition to being forced to fight in Afghanistan. A NATO military base in Libya (or military 'presence') would give the alliance another lease on life outside of Europe and draw the Europeans into shouldering some of the costs of U.S. security strategy in Europe.
A peace movement in the United States split over the U.S./NATO intervention in Libya only makes it more likely for Washington to implement its program.
Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.