The Libyan campaign: who’s in charge?

Answer: impossible to say — as this sharp piece by Max Fisher argues.

On the fifth straight day of foreign, air- and sea-based attacks against Qaddafi’s forces, there is still no one leading the massive Western force. The U.S., as Pentagon officials frequently point out at daily press conferences, is not in charge. NATO, still deadlocked by internal disputes, is not in charge. The United Nations Security Council, which only gave enough authority to enforce a no-fly zone, is not in charge of the now far more aggressive campaign. The Arab League, which withdrew its support within hours of granting it, is certainly not in charge. It would be as if, in June 1944, the allied powers decided to invade Normandy at roughly the same time, but didn't bother to appoint General Eisenhower to command and coordinate the multi-national force.

Journalists trying to answer the question of who is in charge have been reduced, perhaps because no concrete answer yet exists, to speculating as to whether the U.S. might be willing to support France's proposal for a “steering committee” for the war, though it’s not even clear who would lead that committee or how it would delegate authority between the Western powers. Not only is no one in charge, no one wants to be, and no one has any idea who to appoint.

There appear to be two primary reasons for the confusion, both of which may also help explain why there’s no clear objective.

The first reason, Fisher maintains, is that all the states involved have different objectives. The most cynical is the frantic attempt by the French to overwrite the embarrassing fact that Sarkozy’s support for Tunisian dictator Ben Ali was deep, long-held, and consistent right up until the latter’s overthrow by popular protest. Italy needs Libyan oil more than most other states. And Germany, always reluctant, has become positively hostile to the venture — even to the extent of withdrawing four warships from NATO control in the Med.

The second reason is that nobody in Europe (or the US) is willing to take on a leadership role in a civil war in a fractured, tribalistic statelet.

As my mother used to say, never start something that you cannot finish.