As of the 2 October weekend, the last Gadhafi remnant loyalists are playing Stalingrad (or Custer’s last stand) in his Sirte birthplace. Simultaneously, Western leaders, including USG officials, are paying homage to the new Libyan leadership in Tripoli and endorsing their occupancy of the Libya seat in the UN General Assembly. In the detritus of Gaddafi’s private residential compounds, the mounds of Libyan bureaucratic records, and the cemeteries of those he killed, there is evidence of the final throes of the regime. Separately, media recounts the escape of his wife and several children to Algeria while other family members and senior officials have slipped into Niger.
Is this finally the end for the odious colonel who remains somewhere at large, ostensibly attempting to rally these remnants while broadcasting variously willingness to reach agreement with the victors and/or fight to the death?
Will he ultimately be rooted from a hidey-hole like Saddam Hussein and subjected to a show trial cum execution? Will it be a “Butch Cassidy/Sundance Kid” last stand (as was the case for Saddam’s sons) with his bullet-riddled body trophy hung from a lamp post?
Or could he find well-upholstered refuge in one of the bought-and-paid-for African states upon which he lavished funds for decades, defying International Court of Justice demands for his scalp? Does anyone expect him to arise like the mythical hidden imam from an oasis in the Libyan desert?
Whatever the outcome, it has been long in the offing. Either we massively miscalculated his powers of resistance and the fight-to-the-death commitment of his native tribesmen; massively miscalculated our ability to win victory from the air; or misled our populations regarding the circumstances. Whatever we call “victory” will require more than a “move on; nothing here to look at” official critique.
Let’s take a moment to review the bidding:
First, Secretary of State Clinton denounced Gaddafi in the UN Human Rights Commission. His repression of the Libyan people was execrable and he must leave power.
Then, the United States worked with NATO allies in the UN to authorize a "no fly" zone over Libya to protect civilians.
Next, U.S. warplanes and those of France, the UK, and Canada attacked Libyan air bases and air defense radars/sites—after all a "no fly" zone implies your planes must be perfectly safe when flying over a country, hence destroying sites that might threaten your aircraft. These attacks were followed by further air attacks against Gaddafi’s mobile armored and artillery (indeed you must destroy those Libyan forces that might threaten civilians).
Then the United States transferred combat action to NATO command (Canada stepped forward to handle this hot potato) but found that UK and French aircraft do not bomb with consummate accuracy, needed more precision guided munitions, and the nasty Gaddafi forces were frustratingly adroit in moving close to rebel forces and equipment in civilian structures.
As we pressed further into what began to resemble a “quagmire” to some observers, the "natives" (otherwise known as the U.S. Congress) became restless. They attempted to invoke the War Powers Act and refused to endorse continued operations (albeit not cut funding).
Then Washington committed Predator drones to the battle. Predator strikes are not quite the equivalent of using surgical scalpels to trim logs into firewood, but their tactics raised questions. Were we hoping for an Osama bin Laden moment with bunker-buster bombs eliminating the recalcitrant colonel?
There were many anomalies in our Libya effort. First, the rationale for military intervention—to prevent Gaddafi from slaughtering civilian rebels—was a red herring. Not that Gaddafi had any compunction about butchery; he killed opponents individually and corporately throughout his reign. But projections that there would be hecatombs of dead in Benghazi without military intervention suggests that rebels/civilians would have remained in place offering their bodies to bayonets. Au contraire, they would have poured eastward, escaping into Egypt. And we killed Libyan civilians as well as on occasion killing rebels with "friendly fire"—since Gaddafi forces dressed and moved like the rebels. Messy.
But at every juncture, the USG intoned "no boots on the ground," that is, no Army combat forces. So we assume that CIA officers with the Libyan rebels doing obscure clandestine chores were wearing sneakers. Likewise, various French and British "special forces" (wearing flip flops?) ultimately transformed Libyan equivalents of PTA and League of Women Voters participants into something resembling a fighting force. And that intelligence targeting was done by immaculate conception.
The results were bloody indeed—and nobody has rendered or even estimated a casualty count either from past combat or projected “get even” exercises by the victors once the Sirte bitter-enders have been eliminated. We have a psychological predisposition to favor the underdog, without considering that the underdog may be as vicious as the top dog—just subordinate for the moment.
There is also utility in recalling the observation that “a cat that sits on a hot stove never sits on a hot stove again—or a cold one.” Our “hot stove” for the past 20 years has been the debacle in Somalia with the dead U.S. soldier dragged behind a rebel vehicle after “Blackhawk down.” Will our new military philosophy be “Lead from behind” rather than an extrapolation of the Army infantry maxim, “Follow me”? The reality is that a couple of battalions from a Marine Expeditionary Force and/or a British commando/French Foreign Legion force would have put paid to Gaddafi’s forces with far less bloodshed and destruction than has eventuated.
Moreover, throughout the fighting we turned a deliberately blind eye to engaging Egyptian military forces, which includes four armor and eight mechanized infantry divisions. A tiny fraction of this force, supported by NATO aircraft, would have routed Gaddafi’s battered forces and saved countless Libyan rebels (and Gaddafi loyalists from the coming bloodbath).