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In Libya, What More Can U.S., NATO Do to Turn Stalemate Into Victory?

April 21, 2011 at 6:00 PM EDT
A day after three countries unveiled plans to send military advisers to aid Libyan rebels, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. will deploy armed drones into the conflict. Jim Lehrer discusses the coalition's options with the International Council for Life Science's Terence Taylor and Harvard University's Nicholas Burns.
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JIM LEHRER: And now to Terence Taylor, former career officer in the British army. He is now the president of the International Council for Life Sciences. And Nicholas Burns a former career diplomat who served as ambassador to NATO from 2001 to 2005, among many other positions, he’s now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Mr. Ambassador, first, what do you think of the U.S. introduction of drones into this combat?

NICHOLAS BURNS, former U.S. undersecretary of state: Well Jim, I think it was absolutely necessary.

You know, we have to remember that since, April 1949, NATO has been led by the United States. And you saw in the first episode, the first 10 days of this crisis, how effective the NATO forces were when they were led by the United States.

We provide the strongest military, by far, in the alliance. We provide the political and military leadership. And when we took the United States out of the lead, we saw infighting among the Europeans and frankly, an inability to deploy the kind of technology that was necessary in a place like Misrata.

So the decision by Secretary Gates today that the United States will use Predator is exactly what has to happen in the close combat, street-by-street, alley-by-alley in Misrata, which is a besieged and embattled city. So I think this is — this is a very good decision by the Obama administration.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mr. Taylor?

TERENCE TAYLOR, former British Army officer: Absolutely. I think Ambassador Burns is absolutely right.

This is a unique capability, these remotely piloted vehicles, that the U.S. — only the U.S. can deliver in this situation. And fighting in an urban area, where the combatants are at very close quarters, they’re mixed up with each other, it really needs close oversight, a good view from the air, in order to deliver the capability to — against the heavy weapons that the Gadhafi forces have deployed.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way Ambassador Burns does, as a kind of reentry of the leadership position of the United States?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well the U.S. has the leadership position. It has the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.

JIM LEHRER: Period.

TERENCE TAYLOR: Period. I mean, and there’s a certain amount of politicking going on.

There have been complaints in the past, on the part of the United States, that the NATO countries, particularly Europeans, don’t stand together. If you take Afghanistan as an example, some of the NATO countries, European countries who are deployed there, limit the mission deliberately of their forces, of the same response to the political situation in their own countries.

And to a certain extent now, that’s what’s happening with the United States, that the president is reacting to concerns about another military operation in a third Muslim country.

JIM LEHRER: And as a matter of fact, Mr. Ambassador, the situation — you agree with those who say there’s essentially a stalemate between the rebels and the Libyan government? And some people are even saying it could be — it could lead to a partition that could become permanent, if something doesn’t happen to change.

Do you agree with that?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I do agree with that.

I think, Jim, that this is the — the great dilemma faced by the United States and Europe is that, after the initial successes we had, the firepower that we deployed was just not strong enough, led by the Europeans, to dislodge Gadhafi and to help the rebels.

We have to remember, we intervened in a civil war. We essentially intervened on behalf of the rebel alliance. And the national position of the United States, of Britain and France, is that Gadhafi has to go. But as long as there’s a stalemate Gadhafi wins.

And there is a real possibility over the next weeks and months that, if greater force is not brought to bear, there will be a true division in this country between the east, a rebel stronghold in Benghazi and the capital of Libyan government in Tripoli in the west, and I don’t think the United States and the European countries can define this entire mission as a success if Gadhafi stays in power.

So that’s why you have seen this very dramatic announcement by the United States today with a lot of encouragement from the NATO allies to put the United States back in to the center of the military leadership of the effort.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that, as we sit here right now, the mission, the U.S.-NATO mission, has essentially failed to accomplish what it set out to do?

TERENCE TAYLOR: I think it’s too early to say that yet. I think we’re in fair long haul here.

But it’s absolutely right to think that this battle is only going to be won on the ground. Airpower alone cannot — cannot do this. The advisers that the Italians and French and British have sent, that will have some effect on improving, probably, communications amongst the — and organization and so on.

JIM LEHRER: But that’s not considered — quote — “boots on the ground”?

TERENCE TAYLOR: No, absolutely not. But it will help, but it’s not going to have a help like tomorrow or the next few days. It might over a few weeks have some — some effect.

But I don’t want to overstate that. And  certainly, these are not combat troops. They’re not, as the great cry, boots on the ground. So I think there is a big challenge ahead. I think the NATO air campaign has prevented Moammar Gadhafi from taking over the whole country again. So I think one should recognize that for the moment.

But there does appear to be a stalemate. And it’s hard to see right now how we’re going to move things forward on the ground towards the west.

JIM LEHRER: What else do you think could and should be done, beyond unmanned armed drones, to move this situation from — from stalemate to victory?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well as far as I — I’m still very encouraged and surprised by the determination of these rebels in Misrata. If the Gadhafi forces had been really determined and with all the firepower they have, they would have taken Misrata by now.

But there’s an amazing amount of determination being shown by ill-equipped and poorly trained, with very limited weapons, that the Gadhafi forces have not pushed them out of Misrata yet. So I think there is a great deal of determination and this thing will be won by or lost by determination on one side or the other.

The rebel movement needs a lot of political support. I think there are some very good signals being sent now by the U.S. and U.K. Even sending those advisers is a great political support and give encouragement to the morale to the people on the ground. But better equipment, better training, and better organization is the only way, I think, that the rebels are going to hold on and even get towards Tripoli.

JIM LEHRER: And you think it still can be won, Mr. Ambassador?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I do. And I think President Obama has made the right decision, Jim, not to put American combat troops on the ground in Libya. We have far greater interests in other parts of the Middle East, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain. But if we can sustain greater military attacks on Gadhafi’s forces, prevent him from…

JIM LEHRER: But you think it’s military; it can be done through military means, but without troops?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I do.

JIM LEHRER: Uh-huh.

NICHOLAS BURNS: I do. I think — I — we proved that back in the 1990s in Kosovo, as well as in Bosnia. We didn’t use ground troops. Over several months, we used airpower.

Sustained, American-led airpower will weaken Gadhafi. And then I think what the administration is hoping is that Gadhafi might be overthrown from within or he might elect just to leave Libya and to go into exile, because he won’t be able to survive politically.

So I don’t think this means a true war with combat forces on the ground, but sustained airpower and American leadership are going to be required to take this to the next stage, in my judgment.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

But, Mr. Taylor, there are people who have said from the very beginning that this thing is never going to end until Moammar Gadhafi’s last blood is shed and all the people around him, that it’s not going to be what Ambassador Burns outlined, that it’s possible that he might go in exile and there might be a peaceful solution to this.

TERENCE TAYLOR: I think that’s a very unlikely outcome, that somehow he is going to give up somewhere along the line.

He could be, of course, ousted by his entourage in some way or another. That — that certainly is a possibility. One has to remember all the sanctions that are being applied. He — it is limiting his resources to be able to carry out his campaign.

But this is a longer-term effect. But it is a combination of the airpower, the sanctions, a lot of political pressure being applied. But the key is the determination of the rebel movement to keep fighting. And I think that’s the fundamental key.

JIM LEHRER: Plus, do you agree with Ambassador Burns that what’s happened today — the combination, as you outlined, Mr. Taylor, the advisers, as well as the introduction of drones, is — should be seen as a major escalation from the NATO side?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well, I am hesitating over the word major, but I think it’s an important one…

JIM LEHRER: OK.

TERENCE TAYLOR: … and a great signal to the rebel movement and I think will lead to improvements over time, particularly the drones. I think they will make a big difference.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you.

TERENCE TAYLOR: Thank you.