Foreign Policy Blogs

Cut The Head Of The Snake Off?

There may seem like there’s a big debate about NATO’s policy in Libya, especially after last weekend’s State of the Union episode, in which Lindsey Graham advocated a “cut the head of the snake off” policy.  John McCain and Joe Lieberman also appeared on the program to make similar statements.  But if we actually look at the policies they were proposing, we see that there’s less of a debate than it may seem at first glance.  First, they are not talking about targeting Qaddafi.  Here’s Graham’s “cut the head of the snake off” statement in context:

So my recommendation to NATO and the administration is to cut the head of the snake off, go to Tripoli, start bombing Gadhafi’s inner circle, their compounds, their military headquarters in Tripoli.

The way to get Gadhafi to leave is have his inner circle break and turn on him. And that’s going to take a sustained effort through an air campaign. I think the focus should now be to cut the head of the snake off. That’s the quickest way to end this.

Graham isn’t advocating targeting Qaddafi but rather bombing Tripoli in an effort to get his inner circle to push him out of power.  And this is already the U.S. strategy, as The New York Times reported yesterday:

Military officials privately acknowledge that removing Colonel Qaddafi from power is the desired secondary effect of striking at state television and other symbols of his authoritarian rule. “His people may see the futility of continued resistance,” one Pentagon official said.

The above quote refers to the strike on Monday of Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.  The strike killed three people and wounded forty-five.  It was the third strike on the compound since NATO’s intervention began.  Here’s some footage from Al Jazeera:

NATO denies that they are targeting Qaddafi.  But maybe they’re lying, says Tomas Valasek of the Center for European Reform:

“NATO’s official mandate doesn’t involve removing Gaddafi from power,” Valasek explains, “so the commanders would deny it and say they are going after communications posts and such, but to me it does smell that they are going after Gaddafi personally.”

McCain, like Graham, stopped short of advocating targeting Qaddafi:

We don’t know exactly where he is. We do have to worry about civilian casualties. That could turn the Libyan people against us. I certainly think that we ought to make Gadhafi aware that his very life is in danger, but I think we just have to be a little careful how we do that.

And Lieberman essentially followed suit:

Whether we directly target Gadhafi personally — as John McCain said earlier, it is not easy to do that. But it is possible, and I’d leave that decision to NATO.

The debate is actually about whether the United States should recognize the Libyan National Transitional Council as the legitimate government of the country and arm the rebels.  The purpose of recognizing the transitional council is to allow them access to funds but recognition may be be unnecessary.  The United States has approved $25 million for the rebels, and while that is not that much to fund an insurgency, it is likely to be supplemented by an international fund in the coming week.  As for arming the rebels, Obama apparently authorized it early on in the conflict, though there are no firm reports about the status of the endeavor.  So perhaps these are areas of genuine an relevant disagreement.  But it’s hard for someone without access to classified information to tell.