The embarrassing failure of NATO’s strategy with the Libyan “rebels” is easier to understand when it is contrasted with its closest parallel case, which is probably that of Kosovo. After Slobodan Milosevic had attempted to cleanse the province of its Albanian minority, and after it had finally become clear to the governments of NATO that he had completely ceased to be a thinkable “partner for peace,” a bombing campaign against Serbian units and positions began. To answer those who doubted that aerial strategy alone could do the needful job, it was pointed out that insurgent forces of the Kosovo Liberation Army, operating on the ground, would take their cue from the bombing and work in coordination with it. Those who didn’t like this policy used to sneer that it made us “the air force of the KLA.” And this sneer, as it happens, was more or less accurate. (I well remember one Kosovar militant crudely rejoicing in the sudden appearance of friends in the sky, and saying that it enabled his comrades to “fuck Milosevic with Clinton’s dick”—an arresting image in any context.)
There were other crude things about the KLA as well, such as its sidelines in smuggling and even trafficking, and its lack of tenderness toward Serbian civilians. But it was a genuinely rooted guerrilla force with real knowledge of the terrain and the society, and it had evolved out of a decade-long struggle of wholesale passive and civic resistance under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova. There were clannish and tribal elements involved in the ranks, inevitably for that region, and I have never seen so much ammunition fired pointlessly into the air as at a KLA rally in the mountains. But the outfit could fight sure enough when it came to it, and the option of restored rule of Kosovo by Belgrade had by then joined the list of things that were no longer feasible or thinkable. As the attrition intensified, military and political logic more and more dictated that the bombing switch to the source—Milosevic’s “command and control” in his capital city. It wasn’t long before he was raving and ranting in the dock, where he had long belonged.
Now to Libya: Quite obviously Col. Muammar Qaddafi has joined the list of deranged dictators whose acceptability is at an end, and it is unimaginable that he should emerge from the current confrontation with control over any part of the country. Equally obviously, we shall have to go to Tripoli to remove him. But we will not be doing so in the rearguard of any victorious insurgent army. In Afghanistan we could call upon some fierce and hardened fighters in the shape of the Northern Alliance. In Iraq, the Kurdish peshmerga militias had liberated substantial parts of the country from Saddam Hussein under the protection of our “no-fly zone.” But the so-called Libyan rebels do not just fire in the air and strike portentous attitudes for the cameras. They run away, and they quarrel among themselves, and they are not cemented by any historic tradition of resistance or common experience. They are a rabble, in other words, and the proper time to be sending trainers and “advisers” would be after Qaddafi has gone, when it will indeed be helpful and necessary to offer facilities and advice for a reconstituted Libyan army. Meanwhile, it is ridiculous and embarrassing to be their air force.
In a weirdly neutral and vague joint op-ed article, written by heaven knows whom, President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy persisted in defining the intervention as an essentially humanitarian one, presumably conducted under the rubric of the United Nations’ nebulous “duty of care” doctrine. They also seemed to persist in saying that “regime change” is not a fully declared objective of the operation. The first claim is being badly undermined by the slow but heavy bleeding that is being inflicted on the wretched inhabitants of Misurata and other towns: a needless and costly prolongation of the agony. And the second claim is absurd on its face: You do not use drones and cruise-missiles against the armed forces of a state, and send weapons to that government’s self-declared opponents, in order merely to modify the regime’s behavior. The direct interference in Libya’s “internal affairs” could not be more blatant than it is. Where is the virtue in pursuing this sporadically, with inadequate firepower, with no serious fighting forces on actual Libyan soil, and in letting the pace of events be dictated by the slowest-moving forces?
In effect, this half-baked approach leaves the initiative with Qaddafi. It also means that the mounting death rate, which recently included the lost life of my much-admired Vanity Fair colleague Tim Hetherington along with several others, is not justifiable by any commensurate military or political gains. These are lives that are being frittered away. Hetherington’s last tweet described what he saw in Misurata the day before his death: “Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.” How shameful. What is utterly lacking in Libya, still, is an entrance strategy.
The great vulnerability of one-man states—their built-in weakness and our great hope—is precisely the feature that defines them. Terrifying though Milosevic and Saddam were, and impressive though many people found their elite security forces, they proved under serious pressure to be what Mao Zedong used to call “paper tigers.” Only one delusional individual had to crack, or be cracked, and it was all over. And, compared with the duo mentioned above, Qaddafi is practically a nonentity. Did you happen to see his recent “Cannonball Run” through the streets, gesticulating hysterically from the back of a pickup? It was many things, but it was not impressive or frightening.
The special forces of almost any NATO state—most certainly those of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France—are more than equal to the task of taking him out on their own. If he can’t be arrested, he can certainly be killed. This doesn’t seem to me to violate the letter or the spirit of, say, the official prohibition on assassination of foreign leaders first promulgated during the administration of President Gerald Ford. Qaddafi is now the commander and symbol of a depraved armed force with which we are engaged in direct hostilities. Like Mullah Omar or Osama Bin Laden, he is a legitimate military target and, if only the international courts would not also be so laggard, a legitimate legal and political one as well.
I have heard it argued that the pursuit of Qaddafi runs the risk of civilian casualties, as I presume in theory it must do. But the failure to target him most certainly means a steady and continuous and increasing flow of civilian deaths. To refuse to soil our hands with this homicidal lunatic is an odd way of keeping them clean.