Alex Wilner, Zurich
NATO’s intervention in Libya isn’t warfare; it’s a bargaining strategy.
The coalition isn’t trying to destroy Libya’s military or directly topple Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. Instead, NATO is using limited air strikes to try to convince the regime to comply with its various demands.
The strategy is primarily about using air power to inflict sufficient damage to Libyan interests that Gadhafi changes his behaviour on his own volition. What NATO isn’t doing is crushing Libyan forces to the point that Gadhafi is required to change his behaviour because he has no other choice.
The difference is subtle but important. Like previous strategic air campaigns in Iraq and Kosovo, the Libyan intervention is about coercion: threatening and using limited force to compel an adversary to behave in a certain way.
Compared to warfare, coercive air power is a low-cost and low-risk strategy. It’s especially attractive in cases like Libya. Because NATO isn’t trying to wipe out Libyan forces, it can restrict itself to limited engagement. And because NATO has total air superiority, there’s virtually no risk to its pilots. In theory, coercive air power works by convincing a target country that it has nothing to gain by resisting an opponent’s demands. In practice, coercion requires that we establish a perception within Libya’s leadership that we have the resolve and capability to see our threats through to the end.
The campaign’s duration will be partially dictated by the type and nature of NATO’s demands. Originally, our goal was to stop Gadhafi loyalists from snuffing out the revolution and from carrying out a potential massacre of rebel supporters. That objective was achieved on day two. A humanitarian disaster was averted and the rebels survived. Mission accomplished. Now there’s talk that Gadhafi needs “to go” and there’s an expectation that the rebels will defeat him on their own.
The problem with coercion, however, is that it’s a two-way street. All bargains involve at least two opposing players. We can threaten Gadhafi and issue demands, but he has options for countering, circumventing, and weakening those efforts. Coercive success will depend on what Libya is able to do to us, not only on what we are able to do to it. In this regard, Gadhafi has the power of “counter-coercion”. He can challenge NATO and manipulate its demands by targeting its strategy, resolve, and goals.
Gadhafi can target NATO’s strategy by raising the costs of the air campaign. The easiest way to do that would be to more effectively target the bombers. Fortunately, Libya doesn’t have the military means to do so. But there are other things Gadhafi can threaten. He’s used terrorism in the past. While it doesn’t seem likely that Libya will again start sponsoring terrorism in the West, no one knows for sure how Gadhafi will react if and when his back is up against the wall. Threatening terrorism will force NATO governments to recalculate the costs and benefits of their engagement.
Gadhafi can also hold out against NATO and deny rebel advances. He’s already done so for three weeks. What happens after three months? The longer the stalemate, the more likely Gadhafi presses NATO to re-evaluate the mission. Already, there’s a heated debate about arming the rebels with concerns that at least a few are former associates of al Qaeda. And everybody has rejected a NATO ground war. By simply surviving, Gadhafi undermines NATO’s air campaign and forces us to contemplate unpalatable alternatives.
Gadhafi can also target NATO’s resolve. Even as the mission was being approved, Germany was steadfast against participating. Later, France, Britain, and the US had trouble agreeing on who would take command. Now the coalition is fraying over what comes next. As NATO contemplates further action, other cracks within the coalition will emerge. With any luck, Gadhafi can use coalition uncertainty to fracture its unity. And if he can do that, he’ll significantly diminish NATO’s willingness to continue running costs in an increasingly unpopular conflict.
Finally, Gadhafi can target NATO’s goals. The mission began as a humanitarian intervention. Because saving lives has been the objective, NATO has rightly adhered to strict rules of engagement. We know, for instance, that Canadian pilots have aborted bombing raids because they feared unintentionally killing civilians. If so, Gadhafi’s counter-coercion strategy calls for purposefully placing civilians in harm’s way. By using “human shields” or by parking tanks in urban neighbourhoods, Gadhafi forces NATO to contemplate the humanitarian risks of carrying out its mission. And the fewer strikes NATO conducts, the longer Gadhafi stays in power.
Gadhafi is down, but he’s certainly not out. With the right counter-strategy, he can stall and undermine NATO efforts.