A good outcome is still possible in Libya; the decision this morning by a coalition of Western and Middle Eastern states to recognize the transitional government in Benghazi is an important step forward. But success will require patience and persistence from NATO, creativity from the United States, and pragmatism from the rebels. And there is good reason right now to worry about each of those things.
In order to picture the current state of the military campaign in Libya, imagine three lines representing the will and capacity of, respectively, Muammar al-Qaddafi's security forces, the rebels, and NATO. Each line has a different slope, and they will eventually cross. The good news is that Qaddafi's capacity is almost certainly diminishing. A senior NATO official tells me that "60 to 70 percent of Qaddafi's military stocks are destroyed," while "economic sanctions are biting as gasoline diminishes daily in Tripoli." U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence claim that the rebels' attacks on the main pipeline from the main oil refinery at Zawiyah* has sharply reduced Qaddafi's access to fuel, while financial sanctions have prevented him from securing the funds to buy oil on the international energy market. Nevertheless, Qaddafi has proved much more resilient than most people expected. His grip on Tripoli is not threatened, and the stream of high-level desertions he suffered early in the conflict has slowed to a trickle.
The rebels have all the will in the world, but the growth in their military ability has been frustratingly slow. Despite optimistic bulletins from the front that the war will be won in a matter of weeks, their own leaders concede that they're not remotely ready for a direct assault on Tripoli, which in any case would result in massive casualties. Unless the Qaddafi regime implodes, the rebels will have to depend for a long time to come on NATO. But can they?
Four months into the aerial campaign -- already six weeks longer than the 1999 air war over Kosovo -- NATO's arms inventory is running down, albeit far less dramatically so than Qaddafi's. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asserted on July 11 that "a lot of these countries" could run through their stock of missiles within 90 days. And patience has begun to dwindle along with stockpiles. Though France has taken the most bellicose posture of any of the allies, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet recently said that the time had come for the rebels to "get round the table" and negotiate with the regime. This sounds like a sharp change in tone, but when I asked a French diplomat about his country's policy he pointed me to comments by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe on July 11 reiterating the position that Qaddafi can have no place in a future Libyan government. France, he insisted, remained resolute: The National Assembly just voted 482 to 27 in favor of continuing with the bombardment.
American officials are plainly worried about the diminishing line of will. A State Department official pointed out that Qaddafi has a genius for exploiting difference among the allies. At today's meeting in Istanbul of the Libya Contact Group -- an ad-hoc assembly of representatives from NATO and Middle Eastern country and international organizations that convened regularly since April to chart a course forward with the conflict -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strove to keep the alliance "speaking with one voice," according to this official.