Cynical and Ineffectual: Not a Winning Combination

A couple of days ago there was optimism when Libyan rebels raced across the desert chasing Khaddafy’s forces out of several towns.   Today there is pessimism as the rebels raced back the other way, chased by government troops.

People need to get a grip; this is likely to be the way things will go, absent a major shift in tactics by the US and NATO.  Those with a passing familiarity to the campaigns in Libya in 1941-1942 will recognize the pattern.  Then British and Commonwealth forces would race west chasing fleeing Germans and Italians, only to race east, chased by the Afrika Korps.  Back and forth they went, repeatedly.

The desert offered no dominating topographical features that could be defended easily.  There was always an open flank (except when the British dug in at El Alamein, with the Med on their right and the Qattara Depression (an impassible morass of quicksand) on their left.  Given the open flank and the lack of defensible terrain, it was nigh on to impossible for a retreating force to make a stand; the attacking force would simply outflank any defending troops, and away they would go. But the advancing force would soon outrun its logistics, and the defenders would fall back on their bases; the attack would stall; and soon back they would go the other way.

Things aren’t exactly the same today.  The rebels are nothing like the Eighth Army, and the Libyan government troops are certainly nothing like the Afrika Korps, or even the hapless Italians.  US (and NATO) air forces are light years beyond anything seen under Ritchie or Cunningham or Montgomery or Rommel.  But the fundamentals aren’t all that different.  Which means that unless a serious ground force with serious logistical support goes into Libya, the stalemate is almost certain to continue.  NATO/US airpower can prevent Khaddafy from overrunning the rebels: when his armor is in the open, it is very vulnerable, and when advancing, his logistical tail is one big target.  But when Khaddafy falls back on his strongpoints, even with the support of airpower, the rebels cannot dislodge him.  A far more violent and sustained air campaign couldn’t pry Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991; it took heavy forces (VII Corps and the 1st Marine Division) to bash him out after his troops had been pummeled from the air.  The rebels have nothing close to that capacity.

The prospect for such a stalemate is leading the allied leaders to scramble for solutions.  Such as covert actions against Khaddafy, and arming the rebels.  But the likelihood that covert actions against Khaddafy will result in his death and ouster are close to zero.  It’s been tried many, many times before–and failed almost every time.  Self-protection is what dictators excel at.  How many times did the CIA try to kill Castro?  Saddam?

Insofar as arming the rebels is concerned–please.  There is no way to provide them with the combat power and training to make them a credible offensive force.  At best, arming them would just guarantee a protracted standoff.  And since when did arming combatants in a civil war constitute a humanitarian intervention?  Just look at all the wars in Africa which descended into horrific, indecisive bloodlettings when the opposing sides were supplied with arms by outsiders.

These plans are a confession of strategic bankruptcy.  The only decisive alternative–a robust ground intervention–has been ruled out.  The current operation can prevent a rebel defeat, but cannot a secure a rebel victory.  So the allies are casting about for anything that could possibly work.  But possible is not anything close to probable.  The most likely outcome is a grueling and indecisive civil war.  Again–that’s humanitarian?

Not to mention the possibility for blowback–given that many of those who may receive arms are dyed-in-the-wool jihadis.  Not foreseeing the possibility that Islamic radicals could turn on the US after we supported them in Afghanistan in the 1980s is understandable, and perhaps even excusable given the stakes in the conflict.  But since the stakes here are much lower, and since we have learned by hard experience the dangers of arming those who are ideologically opposed to us in order to achieve a tactical gain, arming the Libyan rebels is hard to understand and far harder to excuse.

I’ve heard for 30+ years how the US should avoid another Viet Nam, even when the analogy was completely inapt.  Well, incrementalism driven by a judgment that the only approach that is likely to be decisive is unacceptable was exactly the fatal error in Viet Nam.  So the latter day incarnation of the best and the brightest seem hell bent on doing it again; the analogy seems far more relevant now than in ‘91, for instance, when it was heard ad nauseum.

One last thing.  Obama is reported to have signed an intelligence finding authorizing CIA support of the rebels with the possible objective of overthrowing Khaddafy.  As I just noted, this is unlikely to lead to anything more than a standoff in the desert.  But the cynicism is rather breathtaking.  Obama denies that regime change is an objective.  He genuflects to the UN, and claims that the US and its allies are acting subject to its authority–but the UN did not authorize regime change.  The gap between word and deed is vast.

If the man who ran for president on a platform of peace and transparency and deference to international bodies is capable of such a cynical betrayal of all of these, what that he says can be believed?

Wretchard has it right:

The entire theme of the administration’s Libyan policy is “we don’t need no steenkin’ badges”. Not from the Congress, not even from the UN Security Council. For authority they can just write a little secret finding and as long as Washington insiders let him get away with it, it’s a done deal. Hillary can reinterpret the UN arms embargo to whatever she wants it to mean. Things are infinitely elastic, which is to say, they can do anything they want. It marks the final emergence of an incipient aristocracy from the cocoon of a Republic. It has no obligations to anyone. Not even to tell the truth to itself.

Those who believe themselves to be morally transcendent can rationalize any means to achieve the ends they have chosen–because they have chosen them.  The rules don’t apply to them.  Such hubris brings nemesis.

About Craig Pirrong 223 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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