James Clapper opined yesterday that Qaddafi was likely to outlast the Libyan rebels currently battling him for control of the oil rich North African nation. For his remarks, Clapper was widely condemned and the White House admonished him, claiming that he offered a static rather than dynamic assessment of Libya. Clapper, though, was probably giving a more accurate assessment than many in the West would like to admit.
The Economist reports that, while many Libyans rush valiantly to the front, the Libyan Army units that early on defected to the rebellion have remained on the sidelines, unmoved by the slaughter there erstwhile civilian comrades endure. In the face of such prevarication on the part of the armed forces, and the ferocious counterattack launched by pro-Qaddafi force in recent days, it is difficult to see support for the rebellion by the West to be anything but a fool’s gamble. How can even well-equipped untrained civilians be wagered upon by the West when the Libyan army refuses to do the same?
Yet, there is reason to believe that supporting the Libyan rebellion is the least-bad—even the best—option available to the West. There can, at this point, be no mistaking that the West intends for Qaddafi to be ousted one way or another. Indeed, Western states have said as much—the United States and Britain have called for him to immediately step down, France has extended recognition to the rebels. There is no salvaging Qaddafi-ite Libya’s position in the international community nor the relationship between Qaddafi and the West. What remains are varying degrees of hostility that culminate with outright war between the West and Libya. Thus, the West is left with the choice of taking no action and accepting the continuation of Qaddafi—to say nothing of the slaughter of Libyans—as a fait accompli or taking some action to push the Libyan rebels towards victory and, hopefully, the moribund Libyan defectors off the sidelines.
Merely accepting Qaddafi’s continued rule is a non-starter. The hostility between the West and his regime, as well as history of covert adventurism, makes his presence a threat to the West and to the region. Instead, providing the Libyan rebels with some covert assistance in the form of weapons, training, intelligence, and logistics may not only bolster them in the face of what will only be an increasingly brutal crackdown by Qaddafi but it may also help to get defected Libyan army units into the game—and, encourage other units to likewise defect.
Career soldiers—and generals, particularly—are practical people. They are trained to read the balance of forces, at least on a battlefield, and make decisions that are likely lead to ultimate survival if not success. Libyan army units which have now been relegated to the sidelines of the Libyan civil war will remain there so long as they think it is likelier than not that the Qaddafi regime will survive and that their treason will not be punished, ultimately, by death. Similarly, those units that have remained loyal to the regime will continue to press the attack—or at least not defect—so long as they think the odds are in favor of the regime’s survival. A measure of Western support for the rebels may set off a domino effect of pushing the rebels towards viability, forcing the defected Libyan units into the fight, and enticing currently loyal units to make common cause with their comrades in Benghazi.