After a year of secret negotiations, Italy agreed last month to allow the United States to fly armed drones over Libya, the Wall Street Journal reports:
But Rome’s green light came with the kind of caveat that has crimped U.S. attempts to win allies’ help in fighting the extremist group: The Italians granted permission for the drones to be used only defensively, to protect U.S. special-operations forces in Libya and beyond, the officials said.
U.S. officials are still attempting to persuade the Italian government to allow the drones, based at Naval Air Station Sigonella on the island of Sicily, to be used for offensive operations like one the U.S. conducted Friday against a training camp near Sabratha, Libya, targeting a senior Islamic State operative from Tunisia.
But in private conversations over the past year, Italian officials have balked at that step, the American officials said, fearful of igniting domestic antiwar opposition, especially in cases in which the Italians could be blamed for civilian casualties. In addition, the Italians say they want any drone strikes to target only non-Libyans to avoid inflaming political tensions there, the officials said.
Military intervention in Libya is also a hot-button political issue in America: with Hillary Clinton still the presumptive Democratic nominee, both Benghazi and the broader war will likely be live issues in the general election. And despite the darkening international scene, Americans are not going to be wild about another Middle Eastern war.
But as a Pentagon spokesman said yesterday, seem to be streaming to Libya as the terror group suffers in a war of attrition in Syria. And while we’ve long argued that the 2011 intervention in Libya was unwise, it’s unrealistic to think that America and its allies can now let Libya burn indefinitely just across the Mediterranean from Europe without consequences.
In the absence of firm leadership, though, the plan seems to be mission creep by design, starting with the Italian insistence that the U.S. have boots on the ground if it’s going to have planes in the air, you’re not alone. The WSJ also provides a glimpse of what may yet come:
All this takes place as the U.S. and its allies await the outcome of talks in Libya on forming a unity government—a necessary step for creating a viable partner with which to fight Islamic State.
The Italian government has said if a unity government were formed it would send a stabilization force to Libya of 5,000 or more troops. Both the French and the British have suggested they are willing to provide support to the Italian lead mission. The U.S. is expected to provide air assets, including surveillance and transport aircraft, for such a mission.
If this enters the American electorate’s national conversation, it will have significant and interesting consequences. Libya is badly broken, and putting it back together again is not going to be easy—if possible at all.