A joint op-ed on Libya by David Cameron, Nicholas Sarkozy, and Barack Obama will appear in tomorrow’s papers. Despite reports of significant disagreement within NATO on the direction of the ongoing intervention, the piece includes a strong denunciation of Gaddafi, and states clearly that his presence in a future Libyan government is unacceptable. The leaders seem to be deliberately forcing themselves to commit to his removal, because they linked his political survival to renewed Libyan terrorism:
“Qaddafi has promised to carry out terrorist attacks against civilian ships and airliners. And because he has lost the consent of his people any deal that leaves him in power would lead to further chaos and lawlessness. We know from bitter experience what that would mean. Neither Europe, the region, or the world can afford a new safe haven for extremists.”
The hand-tying effect of this should be clear. Imagine that one of these leaders reverses course on Libya and their state experiences a Libya-sponsored terror attack. This op-ed would become a lethal weapon in the hands of their political opponents. It is thus a signal to the world that NATO will oppose a settlement in Libya that includes Gaddafi in power. This is not a terribly difficult commitment to make–Gaddafi’s long history of using terror aside, the Transitional National Council has already indicated the total unacceptability of Gaddafi remaining in power, and this war is theirs to continue or settle. However, it is a stronger commitment than has been made before. All the leaders had been very reluctant to confirm that they wished to remove Gaddafi, because they were seeking international support for an intervention and did not want to be divisive (Barack Obama’s brilliant political maneuvers during the run-up to the war will be the topic of a future post). All of the leaders have also been eager to convey to domestic audiences that their intervention will be limited in scope. This op-ed thus represents a turning point–the leaders of the only countries that have seriously committed to the intervention (sorry, Denmark!) have lengthened (but not deepened) their commitment.
Conspicuously absent from the op-ed is any opinion on Gaddafi’s sons. Gaddafi’s regime has been testing the waters for their succession for several days. The TNC has already indicated that they are unacceptable, but it seems plausible that this position will change if the war drags on. The op-ed has thus kept NATO flexible on a final settlement, despite appearing to be a move away from flexibility. The rebels simply cannot accept a peace with Gaddafi–they would fight to the death or (more likely) flee before they would accept his leadership, for they know it means punishment. NATO’s commitment is intrinsically entangled with the rebels, because anti-genocide operations cannot be conducted from the air if the cities are not in friendly control–airstrikes in cities risk the heavy civilian casualties that the operation aims to prevent. Thus, NATO’s weakest negotiating position, as long as it remains committed to protecting Libya’s civilians, is identical to the TNC’s weakest position. NATO has thus made a subtle move here–the new commitment, though it will incur some domestic costs for the leaders involved, does not actually represent a change in what they’re willing to accept in a settlement. It’s little more than an admission of what was already the case, yet it will get the TNC and the rest of the Libyan opposition off their backs, as they were very unhappy with NATO’s reduced operational tempo and refusal to provide them with arms. At the same time, it sends a message to Gaddafi that NATO is backing the TNC’s negotiating efforts, because it indicates agreement with the basics of their platform, and states that the people of Libya alone may decide their fate.
Upshot: The op-ed is a new commitment, but it is not as deep as it appears.
Prediction: This may cause a few more defections from Gaddafi’s forces, as NATO is showing it will not be worn down. This will not spark enough defections to end Gaddafi’s regime.