Continetti is guest-blogging for The Post.
Tim Hetherington, the director of “Restrepo,” and photographer Chris Hondros were killed by a grenade in the rebel-held city of Misrata on April 20. Hetherington’s last tweet reads: “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscrimate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.”
What on earth is going on in Libya? President Obama committed U.S. forces to prevent the massacre of civilians in Benghazi. He says his goal is a Libya where Moammar Gaddafi does not rule. Yet here we have a humanitarian and military crisis unfolding in Misrata — and NATO seems to be feckless. New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers has a jaw-dropping report in today’s paper on the pathetic weaponry Libyan rebels are using to fight. Arming the rebels is an obvious way to assist them in achieving the president’s stated goal. Yet the government has been ducking behind the nearest chair whenever the subject of arms comes up. We haven’t even recognized the provisional government in Benghazi.
Obama doesn’t seem to get that NATO is not the Democratic Congress circa 2009-2010. You cannot simply give a speech stating your desires and let Nancy Pelosi take care of the rest. You have to lead. And in this case, leading means committing U.S. air, naval, counterintelligence and financial resources on the side of the rebels to hasten the collapse of the Gaddafi regime.
A NATO operation without the full commitment of the United States is a prescription for failure. Look at how southern Afghanistan deteriorated between the onset of NATO control in 2006 and Obama’s surge in 2009. The murky civil war that’s resulted from NATO half-measures in Libya may insulate the president from domestic criticism. But that won’t last. Pretty soon Americans are going to start wondering why Gaddafi remains in Tripoli, why Libyan state television still broadcasts, why NATO is riven by infighting and indecisiveness.
There was an argument for staying out of Libya. Of course, nonintervention would have had costs of its own — a lot of innocents would have died, Gaddafi would have remained in power, most likely the wave of revolutions rocking the Middle East would have been halted. I happen to think the benefits of a Libya without Gaddafi and the hope of a democratic Middle East outweigh the costs of intervention. But Obama’s approach seems to be all costs: U.S. involvement, rebels who feel betrayed, a Gaddafi who’s just waiting for the chance to strike back, a NATO in danger of becoming irrelevant and a prolonged and indeterminate war.
The good news is the administration has the ability to adjust to national security reality. Obama surged the troops in Afghanistan, struck targets in Pakistan and Yemen, kept Guantanamo open, embraced preventive detention and military tribunals, stuck with the Bush administration’s approach in Iraq, and turned against Hosni Mubarak after a long delay. Authorizing the use of drones in Libya is necessary but not sufficient. The United States has the equipment and capability to locate and destroy Gaddafi’s artillery positions. Our A10 aircraft and AC130 gunship instill fear in the enemy and could lay waste to Gaddafi’s forces. Just the sound of a Warthog could send them running.
True, a larger American footprint would carry risks. As of now, though, the greatest risk is a dispirited and dejected NATO and an empowered and bloodthirsty Moammar Gaddafi.