Also, Obama’s own exercise in interventionism isn’t over yet. Even under worst-case scenarios, our quasi-Libyan war is almost certainly less risky (thank God) than the invasion of Iraq. But it’s still possible — not likely, but possible — that this administration will actually lose its Middle Eastern war of choice.
Geographical quibbles aside*, I agree that this is possible, but only because victory in the Libyan war has been defined in two competing ways that practically guarantee that the war can be declared a failure. War supporters defended the intervention on humanitarian grounds. Protecting civilians in Libya was the goal, and the war’s success was to be measured by how well the intervening governments protected civilians in Libya. As the intervention prolongs the war in Libya, it becomes increasingly plausible that more civilians across more of Libya are suffering and dying than would have been the case otherwise. The longer the intervention drags on without a settlement, the more likely it is that the intervention will have ended up doing as much harm or possibly even more harm than good.
The other definition of victory by the three most significant intervening governments is that the military intervention will end when Gaddafi is no longer in power. According to Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy, the intervention will continue until he has been removed. Pursuing this goal has meant that the intervening governments have repeatedly ruled out any cease-fire or political settlement, no matter how temporary, which might provide an opportunity for relief supplies to reach civilians suffering in besieged cities and those displaced from their homes by the fighting. The rebels’ non-negotiable precondition for any cease-fire is the final overall objective of the U.S., Britain, and France. From the beginning, it has been taken for granted that protecting the population and defeating the regime were one and the same thing, but in practice the insistence on defeating the regime has prevailed at the cost of seeking a cease-fire that would protect civilians from the effects of continued warfare.
Gaddafi can deny the intervening governments victory simply by remaining where he is and continuing to press the rebels in their besieged strongholds (one of which just suffered a major blow to its fuel supplies from pro-Gaddafi forces). Because the stakes are so very high for Gaddafi and remarkably low for the intervening governments, it is hard to see why he is going to yield first. The reality is that non-U.S. allies do not seem to be prepared politically or militarily to outlast him, and the U.S. is appropriately unwilling to increase its involvement in a war that was at best of tangential concern to America all along. As we now enter the fifty-second day of this undeclared, unconstitutional war, it is well past time to begin thinking about how to bring this conflict to a halt and to minimize the costs to NATO and the Libyan population.
* It’s bad enough when we refer to the eastern Mediterranean as “the Middle East,” but what can the name of the region possibly mean if it applies to countries that are due south of Italy? Unless the phrase has simply become a misleading shorthand for “places where many Muslims live,” it doesn’t apply to North Africa.