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Op-Ed

In Libya, 'mission creep' sets in

The most likely outcome in Libya is Moammar Kadafi's massacre of his political opponents.

April 23, 2011|Tim Rutten

In the think-tank argot popular in foreign policy circles, "mission creep" is an idiom for one of the garden-variety mistakes most people were warned against at their mother's knee. Think "don't throw good money after bad" and you've pretty well got the essence of the thing.

Predictably, though, mission creep is what's occurring in Libya. Each halting step the United States and its NATO allies take deeper into a morass none of them really understands makes it more likely that this ill-considered intervention will end in precisely the event it set out to prevent: Moammar Kadafi's massacre of his political opponents.

That's because even the most enthusiastic of the strongman's foreign antagonists, France, is unwilling to commit troops to dislodge him from power. Without foreign troops it seems less and less likely that an untrained, sketchily equipped, ill-organized and divided insurgency will overthrow Kadafi, who has all the resolve of a man with nowhere else to go and the support of his tribal allies and the considerable number of Libyans who somehow have benefited from his misrule.

Speaking to U.S. troops in Baghdad this week, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted that the Libyan civil war — which is what the uprising has become — is "certainly moving toward stalemate." Moreover, the half steps the allies announced this week are unlikely to break the deadlock on the ground. France, Britain and Italy will send a handful of "military advisors" to assist the rebels, while the United States will commit missile-armed Predator drones to the air campaign and $25 million in non-lethal aid.

For once, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had matters about right Thursday when he said, "We consider these moves extremely risky.... There've been cases in history when it all started with sending in military advisors, and then it dragged out for years and resulted in hundreds and thousands dead on both sides."

Moreover, as security analyst Anthony H. Cordesman pointed out this week, the "announcement that British and French military advisors are going to help is not going to alter that situation quickly. It will take months more — at a minimum — to properly train and equip them, and it will take a radical shift in rebel leadership to give them meaningful unity and discipline. In the interim, an enduring war of attrition will turn a minor humanitarian crisis into a major one — driven by the reality that Libya has to import over 75% of its food, and the Kadafi regime was so corrupt and self-serving that the CIA estimates that 30% of the population was unemployed and one-third was at the poverty line before the crisis began."

If, as is entirely possible, Kadafi and his kleptocratic family dynasty somehow survive, the Libyan people will have passed through the privations of a stalemated civil war only to suffer the horrors of an unrestrained tyrant's revenge. Something similar happened after the Persian Gulf War, when the victorious allies quietly encouraged the Shiite Muslims of southern Iraq to rise against a weakened Saddam Hussein, and then stood by while he slaughtered them.

For historians, Cordesman argues, the ill-conceived Libyan intervention "is yet another demonstration that they have the world's easiest profession — all they have to do is wait for history to repeat itself. Unfortunately, there is nothing amusing about the fact that the lives and futures of some 6.6 million Libyans are at stake. The Franco-Anglo-American gamble now seems far too likely to fail at their expense."

Even the more concrete of the steps grudgingly taken by the Obama administration this week is as likely to backfire as it is to succeed. The ostensible military purpose of the Predator drones is to operate in close support of the rebel forces at low altitudes, where piloted aircraft would be at unacceptable risk from Libyan ground fire. Analysts familiar with the drones' operations in Pakistan and Yemen, however, point out that, with proper intelligence, the unmanned craft could be used to assassinate Kadafi, his sons and lieutenants. In other words, kill the snake by cutting off its head. It may sound like a good idea, but …

Something deep and unexpected — perilous, but promising — is welling up across the Arab world. Whatever the outcome, it must be the work of the region's people themselves. If the United States intervenes with military force and summary executions — even of loathsome lunatics like Kadafi — the consequences could be catastrophic.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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