Obama’s Libya “Quagmire”?

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On a day when Joe Biden clearly expresses the White House view that Libya should be a primarily European-led NATO responsibility, former United Nations ambassador and unabashed neocon hawk John Bolton is warning that President Obama’s unwillingness to unleash shock and awe there is leading to a dangerous “quagmire.”

Whereas Les Gelb largely bemoaned this state of affairs with no a clear solution, Bolton wants Obama bomb his way to victory. To wit:

we must reverse course immediately and declare regime change to be our military objective, followed by substantial airstrikes against Khadafy’s military forces, whether or not they are imminently threatening civilians. Even now, US airpower should be intimidating enough to shatter the regime, and dramatically close the firepower disparity on the ground to permit an opposition victory.

Obama may not have a clear vision for victory, but Bolton’s vision is a little too facile. (Not to mention the overly sneering tone: Bolton calls it “ironic” that Obama thinks a squeeze on Gaddafi’s finances will remove him from power, because Obama “acts as though no such constraints apply to him.”)

For instance, Bolton suggests that airstrikes on Gaddafi’s forces can drive him from power. But that’s easier said than done. Bolton doesn’t address the challenge NATO faces in identifying those forces, which increasingly are employing civilian vehicles and the cover of populated urban areas. The arrival of British military officers in eastern Libya will help with targeting, but there seem to be limits to the utility of western air power.

Bolton also suggests that an entrenched Gaddafi may find ways to harm us, “return[ing] to international terrorism” and perhaps “resum[ing] his quest for nuclear weapons.” The first concern shouldn’t be discounted entirely; but there’s not much evidence that Gaddafi has the kind of international terrorism capability that should dictate major American military action. (If anything, the Libyan uprising has created new opportunities for Libya’s long-oppressed Islamists to cause trouble.)

And nukes? That hardly seems likely. Iran is a far more advanced nation than Libya and has been struggling for many years to develop its own bomb. Gaddafi gave up what little progress he’d made in 2003, and in the grip of an international military and economic vice it’s almost impossible to imagine him developing a bomb in what remains of his lifetime. Maybe there’s some crazy, Tom Clancy-like scenario where Gaddafi trades a pile of his gold for a North Korean device. I wouldn’t lose much sleep over it, and I doubt Obama is either.