The war in Libya has been under way for months, without any indication of when it might end. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s faction has been stronger and more cohesive than imagined and his enemies weaker and more divided. This is not unusual. There is frequently a perception that dictators are widely hated and that their power will collapse when challenged. That is certainly true at times, but often the power of a dictator is rooted in the broad support of an ideological faction, an ethnic group or simply those who benefit from the regime. As a result, naive assumptions of rapid regime change are quite often replaced by the reality of protracted conflict.
This has been a characteristic of what we have called “humanitarian wars,” those undertaken to remove a repressive regime and replace it with one that is more representative. Defeating a tyrant is not always easy. Gadhafi did not manage to rule Libya for 42 years without some substantial support.
Nevertheless, one would not expect that, faced with opposition from a substantial anti-regime faction in Libya as well as NATO and many other countries, Gadhafi would retain control of a substantial part of both the country and the army. Yet when we look at the situation carefully, it should be expected.
The path many expected in Libya was that the support around Gadhafi would deteriorate over time when faced with overwhelming force, with substantial defections of senior leaders and the disintegration of his military as commanders either went over to the other side en masse, taking their troops with them, or simply left the country, leaving their troops leaderless. As the deterioration in power occurred, Gadhafi — or at least those immediately around Gadhafi — would enter into negotiations designed for an exit. That hasn’t happened, and certainly not to the degree that it has ended Gadhafi’s ability to resist. Indeed, while NATO airpower might be able to block an attack to the east, the airstrikes must continue because it appears that Gadhafi has retained a great deal of his power.