The president of South Africa has been and gone. The United Nations is wringing its hands. NATO has said it will continue bombing, but Moammar Gaddafi 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 a third of Gaddafi’s military capacity but had not moved the front line at all. Hardly anything has changed since.
In other words, the Libyan war — or rebellion, or whatever we are calling it — is in stalemate. But is stalemate bad?
It depends on whom you ask. Sen. John McCain has been pretty clear: He said on “Meet the Press” in April that a stalemate would attract al-Qaeda to Libya — or others who might take advantage of the absence of political authority. For the same reasons, Sen. Lindsey Graham called on NATO to attack Gaddafi directly — to “cut the head of the snake off.” On the other side of the political spectrum, Rep. Dennis Kucinich 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 mid-March. At the second week of June, 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 plenty of people, at least in the United States and Britain, are perfectly happy with their Libya policy, even if they never say so. They do give hints: A couple of weeks ago, Hillary Clinton declared that “time is working against Gaddafi.” 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. Thus without direct Western military intervention, Gaddafi will be overthrown, the rebels can claim victory and NATO will disappear into the night. In Europe last week, President Obama told his counterparts, in effect, that this is his plan. He even urged officials from countries not in the military coalition to join, 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: If time works against Gaddafi, 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 docking in Misurata, 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 Gaddafi without too much fuss or boots on the ground. Alas, this scenario fails to take into account Gaddafi’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 estimates that the Libya engagement will have cost Britain $1.5 billion by September. It recently quoted a defense analyst who says that the British military had spent $500 million by the end of April and that ongoing operations are costing some $50 million a week.
American military spending may be as high or higher: Last Friday, the House passed a resolution demanding, among other things, that the president give some ballpark figures. Although Congress resisted Kucinich’s attempt to stop the war immediately, it can’t be long before someone more mainstream takes up the cause. Deficit-conscious Republicans are already noticing that large sums 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 suspect that Obama knows this and that this is why he so rarely talks about Libya in public. The less attention drawn to the stalemate, the smaller the chance that someone will ask questions. Here is his gamble: that Gaddafi 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 notice that there isn’t a Plan B. Does he double down or quit?