Are The Lessons of Kosovo Spreading to Libya?

Last Tuesday, NATO forces launched 20 sorties over Tripoli. NATO reported that all the attacks were launched against military targets, usually designated as "command-and-control centers". John Burns, reporting in the New York Times, reports that the attacks "caused thunderous explosions and fireballs that leapt high into the night sky [caused] people and neighborhoods a mile or more away to cry out in alarm... 'We thought it was the day of judgment,' one enraged Libyan said."

This reads more like the NATO raids on Belgrade in 1999, when NATO planes hit infrastructure targets, ending the war in Kosovo and ultimately forcing Serbian President Milosevic to relinquish power. Until today, the avowed aim of NATO was solely to defend Libya's civilian population from Colonel Gaddafi's forces. Today the New York Times reports that President Obama declared "he wants to assure the Libyan people are 'finally free of forty years of tyranny..." Moreover, again according to the Times, "Russia has offered to use its contacts in the Libyan government to facilitate Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's departure from power..."

So far, though NATO strikes have served to protect the rebels in eastern Libya and in Misrata, Gaddafi has shown no desire to surrender his power, and there are no signs of rebellion in Tripoli, by far the country's largest city. But for several NATO countries, time is running short. According to the New York Times, "Many [NATO] countries are struggling with the rapid pace of operations. Some, like Norway, have already said they will sharply reduce their forces, beginning next month."

The Times reports that sources "in Washington, at NATO headquarters in Brussels and in the alliance capital headquarters in Naples, Italy... have described a new strategy to intensify the pressure-and drive out Colonel Qaddafi, a goal that officials now privately acknowledge extends beyond the boundaries of the United Nations mandate to protect civilians."

Today's NATO press conference from both Brussels and Naples (seen on showed no indications that military or civilian NATO spokesmen were willing to go beyond the UN mandate. Officials there clung to the single mission of protecting the Libyan rebels.

It had been announced that France and the United Kingdom were each providing four more helicopters to better enable NATO airplanes to find and destroy Libyan military targets. They summarily dismissed press questions about that subject, as well as questions about civilian casualties from the Tripoli airstrikes.

All of this is dancing around a very thin line -- we admit that we are engaged in military actions against Gaddafi's forces, but we are not at war with Libya. We say we are aiming only at military targets, but in Belgrade, according to the New York Times, we hit "high-profile institutional targets...Although they were legitimate military targets..." The "high-profile institutional targets" destroyed included television stations as legitimate military targets. That doesn't meet my definition, and no one in NATO seems prepared to do that in Tripoli now, though Britain's top military commander, Gen. Sir David Richards (about whom you've read here previously), has suggested a Belgrade-like strategy.

Once again, we're stuck in a non-war military action. The rules are changing day to day, spokesmen continue to proclaim that our only goal is to protect Libyan civilians while our president wants to deliver the Libyan people from the hands of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, and the Russians, who had offered to be an impartial arbiter in the conflict, have been convinced to demand the same thing.

If the newly reinforced NATO air capability does to Tripoli what NATO did to Belgrade in 1999, we will undoubtedly be accused of massacring Arab civilians caught in the midst of the conflict. If we do not bomb Tripoli, and then Gaddafi hangs on, our NATO allies will begin to desert us. We are stuck in a quandary, what do we have to do to get out of Libya with our honor intact?

The NATO press conferences are exercises in pussyfooting -- no one will clearly define next steps or real goals. It's a hell of a way to run a PR campaign to justify a war.