Gadhafi pushes NATO to the brink

Why the Alliance's battle for Libya is also an existential one

In the David versus Goliath match being played out in the North African desert, the most advanced warplanes of the world’s richest countries pound Moammar Gadhafi’s third-rate army every time it pops its head over the parapet. Libya’s oil-based economy has come to a standstill and its fuel supplies have been choked off. But for all its satellite intelligence and laser-guided bombs, NATO (and its ragtag rebel allies) are unable—or unwilling—to deliver the coup de grâce necessary to put a definitive end to Gadhafi’s 41-year rule.

So while NATO jets scream over Tripoli, diplomats in Europe and North Africa quietly search for a negotiated end to the four month-old conflict. The stakes are high, and middle ground is hard to come by. “Brother Leader” Gadhafi has vowed never to leave Libya, even if it requires martyrdom in the name of Arab nationalism. Meanwhile, NATO is an alliance without a clear raison d’être since the fall of the Soviet Union and a defeat at the hands of such a feeble enemy could bring about its undoing.

It has become a mantra among Western leaders and NATO officials that time is not on Gadhafi’s side. They have a point. His means of waging war are dwindling. There has been a slow trickle of high-level defections from his government and military, his country’s foreign assets have been frozen and he is unable to sell the small amounts of oil he is still able to produce. The rebels’ National Transitional Council is slowly gaining recognition as the legitimate representative body of Libya, and the fluid battles and ever-changing front lines of the early stages of the war have settled into a stalemate, although the real estate under Gadhafi’s control grows slightly smaller with each passing day.

However, time is not exactly on NATO’s side either. President Obama faces a restive Congress due to his refusal to present to them a “compelling rationale” for the war. Germany has refused to take part, and recent noises from Italy suggest that NATO’s bases in that country cannot be counted upon in the event the conflict drags on indefinitely. Meanwhile, the campaign’s planners are acutely aware that the Arab League’s unprecedented backing of the Western-led attack on a Muslim country is not open-ended. The more civilians killed in botched air raids, the sooner the expiration date.

So who will blink first? Media reports reveal that backroom discussions are underway between Libya, France and Russia, although expectations are being tempered. A negotiated deal, rather than an outright military victory, is increasingly seen as the only viable option for an end to the conflict.

“Despite the increasing pressure on Gadhafi, we are militarily no closer to an end game,” says Janice Stein, Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto. She believes Gadhafi’s arrest or assassination from within his inner circle is very unlikely, as those who were thinking of defecting have likely already done so. The fates of those who remain are directly tied to his, so their loyalty is virtually guaranteed. “They may be pressuring him to make a deal,” she explains, “but they will probably not attack him.”

“There is a strong interest on the part of all the warring parties to stop warring because it’s expensive and risky,” says David Rothkopf, President and CEO of Garten Rothkopf and former managing director of Kissinger Associates. “I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if somebody says, ‘here’s the solution: [Gadhafi’s] going to leave and this country has agreed to accept him and we’ll deal with prosecution at some later date and the people of Libya are going to have a choice.’”

A deal to end the conflict would likely resemble Rothkopf’s description or one in which Gadhafi remains in Libya, shielded from prosecution but under a house arrest-type arrangement. The former is clearly preferable for both the rebels (who reject the notion of hosting Gadhafi in the “new” Libya) and for NATO. However, finding a willing host for such an infamous figure is a tall order.

Any possible destination would have to be a non-signatory to the International Criminal Court, which issued an arrest warrant for Gadhafi on June 27. Countries such as Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and North Korea are possibilities, as are China and Russia. Of these, Russia stands out due to its long-standing ties with Libya as well as the leverage it would gain with NATO for future negotiations on a variety of issues. This may explain Russia’s interest in finding a solution to the conflict.

In any event, Rothkopf believes that the “war by committee” approach taken by NATO guarantees that core objectives (such as the arrest of Gadhafi) go unrealized. “It’s clear that [NATO] wants to do regime change but they haven’t been able to do it overtly,” he says. “So they had to make those moves via the back door in a half-hearted way, and the result is that they haven’t made a lot of progress.”

He believes NATO’s sole focus on protecting civilians crippled the effort from the outset, and that future coalition campaigns will leave themselves more legal room to manoeuvre when making their case to either the UN or their own people.

“I think in 100 years we’ll look at this and say, ‘these were the early days of the multilateral system’,” Rothkopf says. “It was indecisive and hesitant, and over time it became less hesitant because it realized there are global public goods that needed protection in a multilateral way. And the best way to achieve those goods is to articulate them and go after them in a public, spoken way.”

But as the war stretches into its fifth month, Rothkopf is sure of only one thing. “We’re not there yet.”