Since the topic of the week seems to be rampant speculation about the success of what I'm calling Obama's Libyan Gamble, I thought it would be worth the time to examine all the possible future outcomes. When I sat down to write this, I was thinking of "Libya, One Month From Now" as a title, but then realized that the time scale didn't need to be that concrete. The exact amount of time things take isn't going to matter as much as what the actual outcome will be, in other words. So take this article as an examination of the "short term" prospects for success and failure in Libya -- say, from now until about two months down the road. Again -- win or lose -- I don't think "two weeks" versus "six weeks" is really going to be the operative factor. But I did want to limit things to just the short term -- because if this goes on beyond a few months, it is going to have a much different effect on the coalition's willingness to continue, the way the world sees the conflict, the price of oil, and how the American public will view President Obama's war plan (and President Obama himself).
So let's examine the short-term possibilities. Broadly speaking, there are only three possible outcomes, although there are certainly endless subdivisions within these three. But this future-telling stuff is hard enough as it is, so let's examine the three basic Libyan possibilities, from worst to best. Then, at the end, I will attempt to use my gut feelings to predict the likelihood of each of these outcomes. Don't read too much into my predictions, and feel free to make your own, as always.
Rebellion crushed, Ghaddafi victorious
Ghaddafi figures out a way to move his forces around without the bombing affecting them (in other words, gives up on using whatever tanks he still has left). Perhaps he also figures out how to reinforce his loyalist troops with mercenaries, without having to fly them in. He develops tactics to keep his cities firmly in his control without presenting large targets to the air raids (such as hidden snipers -- something he's already using). One way or another, Ghaddafi weasels out of the seemingly-impossible corner he's now in to take his country back. In the air, the coalition still reigns supreme, but on the ground, Ghaddafi reclaims his stranglehold (again, without presenting large, easily bomb-able targets to the coalition). Massacres of civilians either happen or they don't, but the rebel forces are either completely crushed or pushed out of Libya.
This would mean the coalition would then have two choices: keep flying, or pack it in. The no-fly zone could be patrolled for as long as there are coalition planes, pilots, fuel, ammunition... and political willpower. That last one will be the trickiest, of course. Coalition countries will take a long, hard look at the extended no-fly zones in Iraq (and how long the United States had to keep flying patrols there), and they will calculate the cost in lives, in money, and in political support. Perhaps France and Britain will decide to stick to it, and keep the pressure on Ghaddafi. Or perhaps the political willpower to continue (when the fight looks a lot harder than it originally did) will then evaporate.
Either way, it's going to be chalked up by many in the world as a failure for the coalition. We set out on a humanitarian mission, and not only did this wind up not knocking Ghaddafi out of power, but it failed even on that limited mission -- that's the way it's going to look. Ghaddafi will enter a stalemate situation with the rest of the world, with his country embargoed (even to the point of an oil embargo, perhaps). The price of oil will fluctuate madly during the fighting phase, but may level out after we enter this stalemate (probably at a higher price than when the whole Libyan situation began).
In the United States, President Obama is going to be painted (rightly or wrongly) as having "lost Libya." Either Obama will speedily hand over command and control early on, in which case his critics will be saying the U.S. didn't do enough; or Obama will fail to put in place any sort of international coalition command and control, and the U.S. will still be in the lead, militarily, in which case his critics will be saying Obama's war plan was faulty from the beginning. Either way, Obama takes a hit politically. If the whole thing is over and done with in a short period of time, perhaps the voters won't weigh this so heavily in 2012; but if a long, protracted battle wages before the rebels are crushed, then Obama war plan is going to look worse and worse every day it goes on.
This is the hardest one to write about, because it describes such a wide range of possible situations. On one extreme of this scale, the rebels are pushed back once again until they only control their "headquarters" city (Benghazi), and not much else -- and Ghaddafi regains control of the rest of the geography of Libya (give or take a few coastal towns in the east).
In the middle of this range of possibilities would be a somewhat even split of Libya, into "government-held" and "rebel-held" areas. Clear front lines would be drawn, and neither side would be strong enough to push through these front lines on the ground. An alternate government would administer the rebel area, which could become somewhat self-sustaining if they controlled oil fields, pipelines, and oil facilities.
On the farthest edge of this spectrum would be Ghaddafi becoming what the media are already calling "the king of Tripoli" -- where he controls the capital city, but not much else beyond the city's borders. If Ghaddafi goes for a "bunker" strategy, he could likely hold out for quite a while in a defensive position and avoid bombardment by locating his military assets where there would be lots of civilian casualties if they are targeted from the air (which he's already done, to some extent). But in this case, the rebels would control the rest of the map of Libya, and would become the de facto government of the country recognized by the rest of the world. How long Ghaddafi could hold out in this hunkered-down position is an open question, but it might be longer than anyone can foresee at this point in time.
How this would all look to the coalition obviously depends on where reality falls on this general spectrum of possible stalemates. But, for our purposes here, we can lump the extremes in with the absolute victory and absolute defeat categories. The rebels controlling only Benghazi isn't going to look a whole lot different from the rebels being completely crushed, at least not in the near term and middle term. Conversely, Ghaddafi only controlling Tripoli isn't going to be functionally all that different than if he were defeated outright, to the coalition patrolling the no-fly zone.
Some sort of stalemate would be the worst possible outcome for the coalition, though. Because then they would be trapped into continuing the no-fly zone indefinitely. They couldn't just walk away from the whole thing, because control of Libya would still hang in the balance. If the spectre of the rebellion being crushed still exists, then giving up on the no-fly zone is going to be seen as the coalition's betrayal of the people they were trying to help (whether that is technically correct, in terms of U.N. resolutions or not). The price of oil will depend mostly on the relative stability on the ground. Civil wars, people sometimes forget, can last for years and years. If rebel-held oil facilities are safe and seen as reliable by the markets, then the price of oil could stabilize. But a stalemate means the future of the Libyan oil would be wide open to speculation -- both of the rhetorical type I'm engaging in here, and of the financial gambling type. Meaning, until it ends one way or another (however long that takes), oil prices would be subject to wild fluctuations based on nothing more than sheer rumor.
In America, President Obama is going to be politically vulnerable from both sides -- as is currently happening. One side will yell that Obama failed in one way or another, and that his war plan quite obviously was inadequate for the mission we should have taken on -- and the pressure will mount to escalate our military activities to guarantee a rebel victory. The other side will be saying we never should have gotten involved in the first place, and that the whole mission is folly -- and the pressure will mount to just "get out of Dodge" and avoid another long-term quagmire. Both sides might accept some sort of "declare victory -- on the limited humanitarian mission -- and pull out" plan at this point.
Obama is, of course, trying to avoid this. His big gamble is on whether he really can successfully hand off the mission to other countries, and how soon he can achieve this. This will become much more important if we hit any sort of stalemate. The damage all this does to Obama politically will be determined mostly by what the future holds for Libya in a year (or more) from now, not just a few weeks hence. Such a stalemate, if it lasts too long, could seriously damage Obama's re-election chances.
Ghaddafi gone, one way or another
This, of course, is the best case scenario. Either Ghaddafi is talked into a hasty retirement in some willing host country, or the rebels march into Tripoli and take him prisoner, or one of Ghaddafi's "palace guards" decides he's had enough and just shoots Ghaddafi between the eyes one night. One way or another, in a very short period of time ("weeks, not months" to use the current White House war jargon), Ghaddafi is ousted, deposed, or outright assassinated.
In this case, no matter what rebel government takes control and no matter what happens later (elections, new constitution, whatever), the coalition can fold its tents and head home (so to speak). The no-fly zone will no longer be necessary, humanitarian aid and reconstruction aid can flow freely into Libya, and the coalition countries can all pat themselves on the back for having done such a wonderful job. And then go home.
This would -- again, obviously -- be the best case for the Libyan people, and for the whole Arab Spring uprising movement, and for the coalition countries as well. Even if the government which emerges in Libya isn't perfect, it'll still likely been seen as a limited success by the rest of the world.
Obama will come out smelling like a rose if this happens, of course. He will have proven all his critics wrong, and the American people will gasp with surprise that a war could actually turn out well in a very short space of time. We've been sold the "don't worry, this'll only take a few weeks" line so many times previously -- only to see it proven wrong each time -- that it could be an important turning point in how America approaches the idea of waging war in foreign lands, perhaps.
If the Libyan war is wrapped up quickly, and Ghaddafi is gone for good, then the world oil market will settle back down. American consumers at the gas pump likely won't see this in a big way until the summer driving season is over, but if the price of gas falls back dramatically by the end of the year, the entire Libyan situation will likely be forgotten by the voters just as the 2012 election season hits full stride.
Calling the odds
So, the big question is: what are the odds? What chance does each of these three scenarios -- win, lose, or stalemate -- have of actually becoming reality in a short stretch of time (one month, perhaps two at the outside)?
At this point, it is next to impossible to accurately answer this important question. Relying on nothing more than gut feeling (feel free to disagree in the comments, of course), I would say that right now the stalemate scenario looks like the most probable. I say this mostly because it is the largest category, in terms of exact outcomes rather than just sweeping categories. Saying "stalemate" covers a whole lot of possibilities. I'd put the stalemate option at about sixty percent, personally (again, I am just guessing, here).
Ghaddafi emerging victorious looked like a lock, before the coalition began bombing. The chances of this outcome have been shrinking, ever since. If the rebels begin advancing in a serious way and retaking key cities and oil facilities, the chances of an outright Ghaddafi victory will lessen even further. The more tanks the coalition bombs, the less chance Ghaddafi's going to be able to dominate the military situation any time soon. My gut feeling, at this point in time (I'm writing this on Wednesday afternoon) is that the chances of an outright Ghaddafi victory are about fifteen percent, and shrinking.
Which leaves the chances of a rebel victory. Again, this is likely going to be harder than we think (unless Ghaddafi is assassinated by his own troops or steps down suddenly), and take longer than planned. But if the rebels do succeed in taking over city after city from Ghaddafi's troops, if his loyalist troops start switching sides (or even deserting the field and refusing to fight), then the momentum could change very swiftly. Right now, I'd put the chances of an outright rebel victory, complete with some sort of transitional rebel government, at about twenty-five percent. And rising.
This war has been developing extremely quickly, however. All of this is in flux. The situation changes every night, when coalition raids take out more targets, and it can even change hour-to-hour in terms of ground positions. In other words, in a day's time (or a week's) the entire situation could change dramatically in any number of directions. But I thought it was worth at least examining the situation as it stands currently, to provide some sort of baseline for what happens later.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant