The List

Libyan Limbo

Six reasons why it's been so tough to get Qaddafi to quit.

As the war in Libya drags on, the United States faces a familiar predicament: Why, despite possessing overwhelming military superiority over any foe, does it have such a hard time using the threat of force to push much weaker dictators around?

This isn't a new problem. During the 1990s, the United States and its allies found it much harder than expected to convince Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to stop repressing opposition groups and open suspected weapons facilities to inspectors, to protect civilians in Bosnia, to force Somali warlords to stop pillaging humanitarian relief efforts, and to compel Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to end his violent ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo.

A decade ago, we wrote a book pondering this very puzzle. The short answer was that political constraints often bind the United States and its coalition partners much more tightly than their adversaries, and in ways that offset advantages in raw military power. Those painfully learned lessons apply more than ever in Libya today and help explain why Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi isn't flinching against the world's most sophisticated military forces -- despite his near-complete international isolation.

NATO forces and their Libyan rebel allies have scored some notable successes over Qaddafi. Eight high-ranking Libyan officers, including five generals, defected to Italy this week. Rebel forces drove Qaddafi's troops back from Misrata last month, ending the suffocating siege of the strategically located city. But despite these advances, neither side appears poised to break out of the months-long military stalemate in western Libya.

NATO is not attempting to bring about a complete military defeat of Qaddafi, which would require a much larger military effort, but is instead trying to impose sufficient costs that his regime either surrenders or collapses. Airstrikes targeting the leadership compound in Tripoli, while ostensibly designed to degrade Libyan command-and-control capabilities, are also likely intended to hit Qaddafi and key regime figures. At the same time, international financial and military assistance to the ragtag rebel forces is intended to bolster the internal revolt against his regime. But targeting elusive (or at times just well-bunkered) regime leaders from the air is hard, and, so far, Qaddafi is showing resilience and resolve -- much more than many advocates of intervention expected.

Six factors drawn from recent decades' experience explain NATO's difficulties -- and why the Libya war could drag on for a long while longer.

1. Asymmetrical stakes: In their classic volume on coercive diplomacy, international relations scholars Alexander George and William Simons concluded that a strategy of military threats has a higher chance of success "if the side employing it is more highly motivated than its opponent by what is at stake in the crisis." For the United States and NATO, this is a humanitarian mission, while for Qaddafi and his cronies it is a matter of life or death. Which side is more highly motivated?

As long as NATO's goal is regime change, which appears to be the case, any bargain with Qaddafi's regime is off the table. Furthermore, the International Criminal Court prosecutor's request for arrest warrants for Qaddafi puts him further into a corner from which he may see no good options but to fight his way out. All of this means that Qaddafi will throw everything he has into this struggle, while the United States and its allies will not -- and Qaddafi knows that.

2. Coup-proofing: Given the devastation that NATO is wreaking on Libya's armed forces, as well as the defections of top members of Qaddafi's regime, Europeans and Americans may be holding out hope that members of the Libyan leader's inner circle could oust him from power. Don't hold your breath.

One thing dictators do well -- or they don't remain dictators for long -- is guard against internal threats. For four decades, Qaddafi bought off tribal and military leaders, put his relatives in leadership positions, played rival factions against one another, and established overlapping military units to make sure no single division could carry out a coup by itself. Spies penetrated every military unit and elite government circles, reporting any rumor of dissent. Most importantly, Qaddafi killed, tortured, and jailed -- loyalty had its rewards, while dissent was savagely punished.

Ironically, the civil war gives the most disloyal (or opportunistic) leaders a way out short of a coup -- they can join the rebels. This adds to the ranks of the opposition, but it won't be the decisive blow that Washington seeks. The rebels' promise of amnesty to regime forces that surrender is a good step in reducing their incentive to stay loyal to Qaddafi, but the biggest key to impelling further desertions is military victories, which so far are in short supply.

3. Coalition management: Building and holding together a coalition -- along with winning support from the U.N. Security Council and other international groupings like the Arab League -- is hard diplomatic work, and it usually limits the amount of force the coalition can use. As the cost of signing on, coalition members get a voice in how operations are conducted, what targets can be hit, and how their forces are used.

The NATO countries involved in the Libya mission are no exception. They are all over the map on how to handle Qaddafi. France and Britain would escalate international involvement, while Norway wants to find a political solution. Other countries, such as China, simply call for protecting civilians without endorsing regime change.

Qaddafi has tried to split the NATO coalition or generate diplomatic pushback to tougher measures. The Libyan leader, for example, declared "the gate to peace is open" and has welcomed mediators like South African President Jacob Zuma -- empty rhetoric and gestures, of course, but ones that could potentially split off some coalition members or tie NATO up in internal deliberations.

4. Casualty sensitivity: U.S. military operations, especially in nominally humanitarian contexts, are conducted to minimize American casualties. In 1993, during the humanitarian mission in Somalia, 18 U.S. servicemen died in the infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident. Although hundreds, perhaps over 1,000, Somalis were killed in the same firefight, it was widely seen as a debacle and sped the U.S. withdrawal.

The American public is not fully behind the Libya operation. A recent poll showed that 54 percent of Americans supported the intervention and 43 percent opposed it. With support likely to decrease as operations drag on, even a few casualties risk undermining public and congressional support. The administration is thus unwilling to put troops on the ground or take other steps that would significantly escalate military pressure, yet entail the risk of further casualties.

Moreover, NATO planners are also very sensitive to collateral damage as civilian suffering undermines political and diplomatic support for operations -- particularly in the case of a war that was justified on a humanitarian basis. Meanwhile, dictators like Qaddafi often look to exploit international aversion to collateral damage by placing civilians in harm's way for their own political and diplomatic advantage -- not to mention, to save their own skins. In Misrata, Qaddafi's forces mixed their tanks and other heavy weapons with civilians to hinder NATO targeting. As one NATO officer put it, "When human beings are used as shields we don't engage." The result, once again, is the neutralization of NATO's military edge.

5. Waiting games: When the United States and its allies shifted the goal of the Libya operation to include Qaddafi's removal from power, the dynamics of the conflict also shifted: A tie -- even if the U.N. Security Council mandate to "protect civilians" is satisfied -- means the allies lose. The United States and its allies need to break the stalemate; Qaddafi only must maintain it. NATO leaders are calculating that attrition and pressure will wear Qaddafi down, but he probably sees time on his side, too: If he can only hang on long enough, the American and European publics will tire of the conflict.

Like any battle of wills, perception is everything. For Qaddafi's regime to yield, it's not enough for the coalition to sustain the pressure. Qaddafi has to believe that the coalition will do so. It's not enough that his strategies fail to split the coalition or deplete U.S. political will. Qaddafi has to believe they will fail. When Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program and agreed to let Libyan officials stand trial for terrorism in the West, he did so because he believed he had little choice if he wanted his regime to escape isolation. Now the stakes are higher for Qaddafi, so the pressure has to be even greater.

6. Domestic politics: Just as President Bill Clinton did at the outset of the 1999 Kosovo crisis, President Barack Obama declared that ground troops were off the table in Libya. It's one thing to calculate that ground troops are unnecessary, too costly, or required elsewhere -- but why declare to the adversary that certain options for escalation are a non-starter?

Because domestic politics sometimes compel it. With his administration trying to extricate the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama had little interest in becoming embroiled in a third costly ground war. But his vow also tells Qaddafi that there are limits to international escalation, and it signals U.S. cautiousness and cost-aversion.

Because this is a war of choice for the United States, the domestic political constraints are tighter. President George W. Bush faced few constraints when he led the United States to war in Afghanistan in 2001 -- almost all Americans supported the conflict and U.S. vital interests were obvious. There were tighter constraints in Iraq in 2003 but, because the strategic stakes for the United States were perceived as high, the president had more leeway. And because there are, at best, limited strategic reasons to intervene in Libya, Obama's options are fewer.

Because perceptions are so important, one key to success lies at home. Qaddafi must believe that leaders in Washington and allied capitals will pay the price to oust him. The coalition must credibly establish a threat of escalation, and that means defending some difficult choices and costly options. U.S. adversaries in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere are quite aware of U.S. political deadlines. The heavier bombing in recent days, as well as decisions by Britain and France to deploy attack helicopters in Libya, suggests NATO may be moving in this direction. Such gradual shifts, however, are not likely to jolt regime elites into abandoning Qaddafi.

The Obama administration should keep these six factors in mind as it weighs its next steps. At this point, the United States and its allies must decide whether they will indeed pay the price to unseat Qaddafi and, if so, raise the stakes. Qaddafi's regime has billions of dollars in frozen assets; some of this should be put at the rebels' disposal, or coalition forces should at least give them loans with these assets as collateral. A new U.N. Security Council resolution should be passed to enable the open provision of military assistance to the rebels. These steps will make the rebels more effective, send a message to Qaddafi loyalists that the writing is on the wall, and eventually help stabilize Libya during the period after his regime finally falls.

The List

Who's Who in Yemen

As Yemen veers toward civil war, a look at the players that may determine the country's future.


Elected president of what was then the Yemen Arab Republic in 1978, Saleh has ruled the country in one form or another for more than three decades, a task he famously likens to "dancing on the heads of snakes." Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables paint a picture of a wily survivor determined to enrich and empower his own family and friends at the expense of the nation. But declining oil revenues have made it harder for the president to sustain his tribal patronage network, and observers have warned for years that Saleh was losing his edge. (One 2009 cable quoted a member of parliament describing the president as "overwhelmed, exhausted by the war, and more and more intolerant of internal criticism.")

A lifelong military man (and rumored whiskey smuggler), Saleh is not thought to have completed elementary school -- and it shows. "Saleh has provided Yemen with relative stability relying on his maneuvering skills and strategic alliances, but has done little to strengthen government institutions or modernize the country," one 2005 cable reads. The president's eldest son, Ahmad Ali, heads the U.S.-backed special forces, and three of his nephews hold top military positions. The same leaked 2005 cable describes Ahmad Ali as "the most obvious choice" to succeed Saleh, but alludes to "considerable doubts as to his fitness for the job."


In recent days, fierce fighting has broken out between Saleh's security forces and fighters loyal to Sadiq al-Ahmar, the head of the Hashid tribal federation, Yemen's second-largest such grouping. Sadiq took over three and a half years ago from his father Abdullah, the grand patriarch of the Hashids, who passed away in late 2007. Abdullah was a close ally of Saleh for many years, but his 10 sons have chosen to challenge the president as he has grown weaker. One son, Hussein, resigned from the ruling party in February and denounced Saleh as a "traitor." Another son, Hamid, one of Yemen's richest men, is a leading opposition politician with holdings in banks, telecommunications, and media companies. In 2009, according to a leaked diplomatic cable, Hamid told the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa of his wide-ranging plans to force Saleh out, promising "controlled chaos" along the Indonesian model. The embassy dismissed his claims.

Saleh is technically a member of the Hashids, through his Sanhan tribe. But family ties only go so far in Yemen: On Thursday, he ordered the Ahmar brothers' arrest.




"Reputedly the most powerful military man in the land," according to a 2005 embassy cable, Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar is the commander of the military's 1st Armored Division. He broke dramatically with Saleh in March, declaring his sympathy for the protesters' demands and vowing to protect them from government reprisals.

Although they are distant cousins, Mohsen has personal reasons to despise Saleh: In 2010, the Yemeni regime allegedly called in Saudi airstrikes against the general's headquarters (the Saudis apparently recognized the ruse in time). Many in Yemen also believe Ali Mohsen was charged with the impossible mission of putting down the northern Houthi rebellion, a task he performed with great brutality, in order to marginalize him.

Ali Mohsin may covet the presidency, a prospect that leaves analysts cold. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the military is not a cohesive institution -- "it is actually very tribalized," according to Khaled Fatteh, a Yemen expert at St. Andrews University. "It is not an organization that can take over the responsibility of transition."


The blandly named JMP is Yemen's official opposition, a fractious coalition formed in 2002 and comprised of five parties as well as a few independents. Together, they won nearly 60 of 300 parliamentary seats in the last election in 2003, but much has changed in the intervening years. The largest bloc is Al-Islah, an Islamist party dominated by the al-Ahmar family, other northern tribesmen, and the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood. One prominent member is Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a hard-line Salafist preacher who was named a "specially designated global terrorist" by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2004.

The JMP also includes the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), the former ruling party of South Yemen, and three smaller parties: the Islamist Al-Haq, the Nasserists, and the Popular Forces Union. With the backing of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the JMP for weeks has been trying to broker a deal for Saleh to step down, but that deal has now fallen apart and has been denounced by protest leaders.


The dog that hasn't barked -- so far -- during the uprising is Yemen's separatist movement, the legacy of the country's failed experiment with socialism and still-unresolved questions dating back to the country's 1994 civil war. North and South Yemen were separate countries until 1990, when the collapse of the Soviet Union gave Saleh room to broker a unity accord, with the backing of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. The loose southern movement, led initially by retired general Nasir Ali al-Nuba, first appeared in 2007, demanding equal treatment vis-à-vis the comparatively wealthier north, which dominates Yemen's government, economy, and military. Since then, its demands have escalated, and some are pushing for outright secession. In 2009, Nasser al-Wahayshi, the leader of al Qaeda's Yemen branch, announced his support for an independent Islamic emirate in the south, a goal that doesn't seemed to be broadly shared in the south. The Southern Movement has pledged its support to the anti-Saleh protesters, but is using the movement to push for autonomy within a federal system.

GAMAL NOMAN/AFP/Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images; KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images