by Zack Beauchamp
Yes, I repeatedly referred to a stalemate in Libya. That is what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs called it on July 25, and it was only very recently that this description became inaccurate. Libyan war supporters never liked the word stalemate, perhaps because it weakened public support for the war, but for much of the spring and summer it was the appropriate word to use. Admiral Mullen said, “We are generally in a stalemate.”
But Mullen immediately followed that statement with "although Qaddafi forces continue to be attrited," a number of other arguments as to why the current campaign was succeeding, and concluded that "in the long run, I think it's a strategy that will work… (toward) removal of Kadhafi from power." Larison, you'll see, was using the term to suggest precisely the opposite of Mullen's conclusion: Qaddafi wasn't going anywhere. That's why he got the Von Hoffman.
First, the reason that Libya war supporters "never liked" the term stalemate was because it wasn't accurate when used to suggest the conflict was going to drag on. As Juan Cole argues:
There was a long stalemate in the fighting between the revolutionaries and the Qaddafi military. There was not. This idea was fostered by the vantage point of many Western observers, in Benghazi. It is true that there was a long stalemate at Brega, which ended yesterday when the pro-Qaddafi troops there surrendered. But the two most active fronts in the war were Misrata and its environs, and the Western Mountain region. Misrata fought an epic, Stalingrad-style, struggle of self-defense against attacking Qaddafi armor and troops, finally proving victorious with NATO help, and then they gradually fought to the west toward Tripoli. The most dramatic battles and advances were in the largely Berber Western Mountain region, where, again, Qaddafi armored units relentlessly shelled small towns and villages but were fought off (with less help from NATO initially, which I think did not recognize the importance of this theater). It was the revolutionary volunteers from this region who eventually took Zawiya, with the help of the people of Zawiya, last Friday and who thereby cut Tripoli off from fuel and ammunition coming from Tunisia and made the fall of the capital possible. Any close observer of the war since April has seen constant movement, first at Misrata and then in the Western Mountains, and there was never an over-all stalemate.
This comports with Mullen's view that the status quo strategy was ousting Qaddafi and, as I noted, several other analysts' views at the time. These people argued that Qaddafi's regime was doomed because the longer term trends favored the rebels. Lynch, June 18th:
This is a good time to realize that the war in Libya was very much worth fighting and that it is moving in a positive direction. A massacre was averted, all the trends favor the rebels, the emerging National Transitional Council is an unusually impressive government in waiting, and a positive endgame is in sight.
Goldstein, July 18th:
Back in June, I wrote that the Libya war could be over before the end of the month. I was wrong about that; it’s been slower. But I still think the situation is not a stalemate or quagmire, but one that moves continuously in one direction, albeit slowly — toward Gaddafi’s collapse.
Damningly, Larison wrote a post disparaging precisely these arguments on July 26th:
Despite the claims that “all trends favor the rebels,” the rebels in Libya remain as far from their goal as ever. It is absurd to continue refusing a cease-fire in the vain hope that there will be a breakthrough, which the onset of Ramadan makes even less likely.
It seems fairly clear in that post that Larison was predicting that there would be no breakthrough, and that the trends didn't favor the rebels. Larison argues that, in the other post cited in the Award, he was simply saying NATO didn't have an alternative plan in case the bombing didn't work. But "we are no closer to finding a means by which Gaddafi would be forced to 'go' than we were four months ago" can only be read in that fashion if one assumes that the current strategy wasn't a means by which Qaddafi would be forced to go. As is clear in context of his other post, that was precisely Larison's assumption. That turned out to be quite wrong.
He also could have made an argument that no one could have seen this coming at the time, so he wasn't making a prediction, just stating a supposed fact:
When I wrote, “We are no closer to finding a means by which Gaddafi would be forced to ‘go’ than we were four months ago,” that was informed by reports earlier in the month that the rebel military leadership had no expectation of a rapid rebel advance on Tripoli. C.J. Chivers wrote in one of his reports that “expectations of a swift rebel advance out of the mountains toward Tripoli are unrealistic, barring a collapse from within of the Qaddafi forces blocking the way. The rebel military leadership has admitted this much, too. A force equipped as they are, they say, cannot expect to undertake an arduous open-desert march against a dug-in, conventional foe with armor, artillery, rockets, and more.” What changed? Gaddafi’s forces collapsed, and they collapsed so quickly that the speed of it reportedly startled NATO officials. At the time that I wrote that line, it was a fair description of the situation, and it seemed a reasonable response to vague demands to “finish the job” that included no explanation for how that was to be done. It doesn’t matter very much, but it wasn’t a prediction.
The Chivers post only supports his position if one accepts that we couldn't have predicted, based on a reasonable reading of the evidence, that Qaddafi forces were going to collapse. Not only do the expert predictions I've cited belie that, but so do U.S. and European intelligence reports from the time. From Joby Warrick on July 12th:
While the momentum has generally favored the rebels for weeks, Western analysts are seeing troubles escalate on the loyalist side, possibly explaining the surge of interest in finding a negotiated end to the fighting, according to two senior U.S. officials who have seen the assessments. “There has been a shift,” said one of the officials, who insisted on anonymity in discussing the classified reports. “The situation is looking much better [for the rebels] than it was just a month ago.”
There were a number of reports of lack of money, fuel, flagging morale, etc. on the loyalist available at or around July 26th that could have led one to conclude the Qaddafi forces were going to collapse. That's what led people like Lynch and Goldstein to say "all trends favored the rebels." Larison interpreted the evidence differently. That's a reasonable disagreement – as I've said, Larison is a very smart guy, an excellent commentator, and a wonderful check on my own generally interventionist tendencies. But it doesn't make his prediction that no "breakthrough" was coming or that the NATO plan would prove inadequate towards collapsing Qaddafi any more correct. That other Washington Post article about the speed of collapse doesn't really help his case either, as he flatly predicted that NATO'S strategy would not produce a breakthrough, not that it would take a really long time.
I'm engaging in this exercise because I think it's valuable to point out when people got things wrong. I've made a number of wrong predictions in the past and almost certainly will again, on matters trivial and not. I should hope someone points them out. It's worthwhile to do so because the reasons I or anyone else got things wrong could potentially be useful as data points for the future. Understanding why the Libya intervention succeeded in ousting Qaddafi (which relate to the factors discussed above) can help judge the prospects of any similar intervention to succeed at stopping mass violence and/or regime change. That Larison got it wrong this time isn't a mark against him especially – it's simply something worth noting.
(Photo: Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft prepare as part of Operation Ellamy, the British action in support of the UN security resolution to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya on March 21, 2011 in Gioia Del Colle, Italy. By SAC Neil Chapman/MoD via Getty Images.)