Don’t Talk About the Libyan War

The administration hopes Qaddafi will fall before Congress finds out what it’s costing.

The president of South Africa has been and gone. The United Nations is wringing its hands. NATO has announced that it will continue bombing, but Muammar Qaddafi has not announced his resignation. The rebels control Benghazi, but the government controls Tripoli. As of the end of April, the NATO bombardment had destroyed more than one-third of Qaddafi’s military capacity but had not moved the frontline. Hardly anything has changed since then.

In other words, the Libyan war—or the Libyan rebellion, or whatever we are calling it—is in stalemate. But is stalemate bad?

It depends who you ask. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been pretty clear about it: A couple of weeks ago, he told Meet the Press that a stalemate would attract al-Qaida to Libya—or others who might take advantage of the absence of political authority. For the same reasons, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called on NATO to attack Qaddafi directly— to “cut the head off the snake.” On the other side of the political spectrum, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, has called for the president to withdraw from Libya immediately, on the grounds that a long-term American involvement there is illegal and unconstitutional—and stalemate, by definition, means a long-term commitment. The U.S. military has been involved in Libya one way or another since the middle of March. We are approaching the second week of June, and there is no obvious end in sight.

Stalemate looks bad. It makes NATO seem ineffectual. Stalemate also sounds bad, which is why nobody publicly defends it. And yet there are plenty of people, at least in the United States and the United Kingdom, who are perfectly happy with their Libya policy just as it is, even if they never say so. They do give hints: A couple of weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that “time is working against Qaddafi.” The Libyan leader, she argued, will never again be able to establish control over the country. Instead—or so the theory goes—sanctions will begin to bite, food and fuel shortages will grow, his followers will grow restless, and his cronies will defect. Without any direct Western military intervention, Qaddafi will thus be overthrown, the rebels can claim victory, and NATO will disappear into the night. During his trip to Europe last week, President Barack Obama told his counterparts, in effect, that this is, in fact, his plan. He even urged officials from countries not in the military coalition to join now, so as to be “on the right side” when the colonel’s regime collapses.

There is another piece to this argument, also never publicly stated, that goes like this: If time works against Qaddafi, time also works in the rebels’ favor. Time lets the rebels develop politically, giving them a chance to think about what they might want to become. Time lets them develop foreign contacts and a supply chain. Ships carrying supplies are now docking in Misrata, which wasn’t possible a few weeks ago. 

It’s an interesting theory, and in the best of all possible worlds, it might even work. A steady but relentless bombing campaign, generous humanitarian aid and training for the rebels, a bit of patience, and we’re done with Qaddafi without too much fuss and without boots on the ground. Alas, this scenario fails to take into account either Qaddafi’s staying power—what is his incentive to leave?—the costs of this operation, and the consequent domestic politics. Nobody is publishing honest figures, so they are hard to measure. But the Guardian newspaper reckons the Libya engagement will have cost the United Kingdom $1.65 billion by September. It recently quoted a defense analyst who says the British military had spent $500 million by the end of April and that ongoing operations are costing more than $60 million a week.

American military spending may well be as high or higher: Last Friday, the House passed a resolution demanding, among other things, that the president give us some ballpark figures. Though Congress resisted Kucinich’s attempt to stop the war immediately, it can’t be long before someone more mainstream takes up the same cause. Deficit-conscious Republicans are already noticing that large amounts of money are being spent on a war that nobody is winning and that isn’t even a war as such. At some point, populists of all sorts are going to notice it, too.

I reckon President Obama knows this, and I also reckon that this is why he so rarely talks about Libya in public. The less attention drawn to the Libyan stalemate, the less chance there is that someone will begin to ask questions. Here is his gamble: that Qaddafi will fall before Congress has focused on the costs of the war, that the war will be over before the public questions his tactics, and that no one will ever notice that there isn’t a Plan B. Double or quits?