*This Commentary first appeared on neimanwatchdog.org on July 8, 2011
While political debate still roils over the legality of the American role in Libya, other questions have grown more pressing. Those questions include whether the European side of the NATO operation can be sustained and whether the Libyan opposition truly has the ability to achieve their goal of taking down the regime of Muammar Qaddhafi & Co.
These issues are critical for those favoring US participation in NATO operations as well as those opposed.
Here in the US, legalities alone probably will not determine the outcome of the debate (with manipulation of the of the 90-day restriction in the 1973 War Powers Resolution by other administrations already a legacy). And President Obama’s recent 30-page report to Congress, arguing that the resolution does not apply, appears to have changed few minds. Political realities involving widening war weariness, fiscal fright, the extent of the president’s determination, and the ongoing generalized political sparring between the White House and the Congress are more likely to resolve—or leave unresolved—the question of continued US participation.
It is vexing that so many of the same politicians calling for an end to the relatively miniscule US role in Libya are the same ones pressing for the US to remain far longer in the more costly Afghanistan and Iraq ventures.
Meanwhile, the support of some NATO states for continued intervention in Libya seems to be buckling. There is Italy, where Prime Minister Berlusconi publicly voiced his opposition on July 7, and then other cases like Norway in which shortages of military hardware -- even basic munitions -- are placing considerable stresses on small militaries. With Washington clearly not in a position to escalate its role to compensate, can the already limited NATO effort go the distance?
With stresses inside NATO clearly a challenge, even more questions have been raised about the intensity of NATO air strikes against targets in Tripoli. Some could be explained as being aimed at the regime’s military command and control network. But repeated strikes against targets associated with Qaddhafi (and France’s recent air drops of arms to Libyan rebels) do raise questions about whether the alliance feels pressure to bring the crisis to a head more rapidly. In fact, despite denials, the intense Tripoli attacks may well represent frantic attempts to score a coup de main by removing the Libyan leader sooner rather than later.
Paramount, however, is whether the combined Libyan opposition on the ground can wrest control of the country from the forces of the regime anytime soon.
Rebels fighting in western Libya -- dangerously close to Qaddhafi’s center of gravity in Tripoli -- have shown surprising boldness and staying power, even in the face of considerable isolation, practically no training, and painful shortages of arms and ammunition. By contrast, opposition armed elements in the east -- with the benefits of ready access to the outside world, a large base, much more in the way of munitions, training, and greater distance from Qaddhafi’s forces -- have been unable to gain any ground for many weeks. Additionally, unlike their compatriots in the west, they appear unwilling to absorb the heavy loses inevitable when fighting from a disadvantage to sustain any meaningful advance.
With all these issues cluttering the political and military landscape, a key bottom line that was the subject of considerable debate in the early weeks of the crisis has been somewhat neglected of late: If the Qaddhafis are ousted, wither Libya? Militant Islamist elements that once resisted the regime so fiercely in eastern Libya over a decade ago do not appear to be a particularly powerful element in the opposition there now, but their true strength remains unknown.
And if the opposition in the more heavily populated west continues to make progress in tackling the regime, while rebel efforts in the east continue to falter, regionalism could become more marked in a post-Qaddhafi scenario, with the western opposition demanding a dominant voice in determining the country’s future.
All things considered, however, there is legitimate concern that it still could be quite some time before the world will be confronted with those post-Qaddhafi scenarios.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.