Libya: fear of stalemate
PARIS In military operations politicians fear stalemate. They favour short, decisive campaigns. The words they don't like hearing are "deadlock" and "bogged down".
The intervention in Libya is 27 days and counting. The first doubts and tensions are emerging. There are signs of frustration. The British and French in particular are turning the heat up on Nato.
It surfaces as a cliche, but General Moltke's dictum holds true: "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy".
The German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, has questioned the whole basis of the campaign by saying there can be "no military solution" to the Libyan crisis.
In the UK the poll numbers supporting the intervention have edged down, but only slightly. In France support at 63% remains healthy. Jean-Francois Cope, leader of President Sarkozy's ruling UMP, said the arguments in favour of action appealed to how France sees itself and what it stands for. "(It's) what we call the values of the republic - the capacity for us to refuse... what is unacceptable," he told me.
But even in France, which unusually finds itself playing the lead role, there is a fear of stalemate. In America the cry would go up "where is the exit strategy?" In the cafes of Paris, where the new interventionist republic is much discussed, the talk is of deadlock on the ground leading to weariness and acceptance of a messy compromise.
Dominique Moisi, of the French Institute for International Relations, told me that "the French are very worried that another country like Turkey could come in and say 'I have a solution - there is a stalemate, I have a solution that will bring a permanent ceasefire on the ground'." And such a ceasefire could leave Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in place.
For the allies that outcome would be a failure. They have said too often that there is no future for him in Libya. So even if he were to withdraw his armour, pull back from disputed towns, restore basic facilities, it would not be enough. Yes, almost certainly lives would have been saved in Benghazi and elsewhere, but it would be mission not accomplished.
The French and British leaders dining at the Elysee last night know this. Time is not their friend. Alliances tend to fracture. Voters grow weary, even without casualties.
The central problem of the campaign, as Gen Moltke knew, is that the enemy adjusts. The Libyans have torn a page out of the Slobodan Milosevic book of defence. Gaddafi's armour is now camouflaged and hidden in the side streets of cities. His forces play cat-and-mouse with the eyes in the sky. Nato sorties are flown, but often return with the munitions still attached to the wings.
And this is where the role of the Americans comes in. President Obama was a reluctant interventionist. He genuinely wanted the Pentagon, on this occasion, to take a back seat. He was also sending a message to the Europeans: it's your patch, you lead.
So after the initial strikes - designed to destroy Libya's air defence system - command was passed to Nato and, in reality, the big two - France and Britain. The Americans have continued to fly missions, but against radar sites. It's what the Americans call defensive missions. What they haven't been doing is going after Gaddafi's tanks and armoured personnel carriers. That is left mainly to the Europeans. The rebels don't like this. They say Nato is too slow to react. They also want the much-feared American close-support planes, the A10 tankbuster and Spectre gunships, that can be so devastating against ground forces.
Some in Paris and London would favour the Americans re-engaging but, for the moment, that won't happen. If there is a strategy for success it is this: to intensify the air campaign.
The plan goes like this: there must be no easing back, no perception of running out of options. For this has become a battle for Gaddafi's mind. He has to see that defeat is inevitable. Pressure has to mount of him day by day. The coalition has to send a message: "we will outlast you". Momentum has to be seen to be with Nato and the rebels. I'm hearing from colleagues in Tripoli that that point has not been reached. The regime still believes Nato will tire.
So the cry is for more planes, more intensity from the Europeans. That is on the agenda at a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Berlin today.
But if the turning of the screw fails then there are the first signs of mission creep. The Italians and Qataris want to arm the rebels. Belgium is not alone in expressing doubts about whether this is covered by the existing UN resolution.
The UK is not sending weapons but it is digging out 1,000 suits of body armour from the stores. Non-lethal aid, communications equipment, trainers on the ground. In the past - and in other theatres - it was a well-worn path that led to boots on the ground.
For the moment the coalition has time. President Sarkozy is under no pressure. The public approves of Sarko the interventionist. French planes over Libya. French special forces tipping the balance in Ivory Coast.
But operations abroad may not translate into popularity at home. As Dominic Moisi said to me yesterday, foreign operations rarely win elections. Bill Clinton was surely right when he said "it's the economy, stupid". President Bush senior was shown the door after victory in Gulf War One. Winston Churchill famously received no gratitude from voters determined to build a different post-war world.
But a stalemate? That could be damaging. The charge would surely surface that the president had rushed into an unwinnable war.
So for the moment the only plan is to intensify, to step up, to keep piling on the pressure and to hope the "mad dog", as the Americans called him, accepts the inevitable.