Don’t Bet on a Brief – or Limited – War in Libya

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President Barack Obama wants a brief and limited war in Libya; Colonel Muammar Gaddafi promises a long and messy one. And, unfortunately for Obama, Gaddafi may be in a better position to deliver.

Obama, together with France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, have made clear that they would like to see Gaddafi ousted from power, but that is not the stated goal of their military campaign, nor of the U.N. Security Council resolution that enabled it. And given the forces they’ve committed and the terms they’ve set for the mission,  regime-change would, at best, be a welcome side effect of an air campaign whose purpose is ostensibly limited to protecting civilian population centers.

The Pentagon insisted Sunday that Gaddafi himself is not a target of military action, after a missile struck what officials said was a command center inside his compound. And Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen made clear that “the goals of this campaign right now… are limited, and it isn’t about seeing (Gaddafi) go. It’s about supporting the United Nations resolution, which talked to limiting or eliminating his ability to kill his own people as well as support the humanitarian effort.”

Air strikes that have obliterated scores of tanks and other military vehicles involved in Gaddafi’s assaults on Benghazi, Misrata and other rebel held towns have certainly evened up the odds of the rebels maintaining control of their strongholds. But the air campaign doesn’t dislodge Gaddafi from power in Tripoli, or, indeed, prevent his forces — and armed supporters — from engaging rebels at close quarters there and in other cities, including Benghazi, where cells of regime supporters continue to operate.

President Obama insists that Gaddafi’s brutal intentions forced the international community to launch a “limited” military campaign to prevent his forces from crushing the rebellion, and the New York Times reported that he had told his aides, late last week, that U.S. military action should be limited to a matter of “days, not weeks.” He publicly insisted on Saturday that “We will not — I repeat — we will not deploy any U.S. troops on the ground,” and the U.S. has sought to limit its leadership in the mission.

Although regime-change is not a specified goal of the campaign — Sarkozy on Saturday even said that that “the door of international diplomacy” would open to Gaddafi once he ended his attacks on rebels and their supporters, in keeping with the Security Council resolution’s emphasis on the goal of a cease-fire and a negotiated settlement — but ousting Gaddafi is obviously an unstated objective of the leaders of the coalition. Indeed, they could argue that civilians in Libya will remain under threat as long as the regime remains intact. Instead, though, they’re hoping that the “shock and awe” effect of air strikes that so effortlessly obliterate so much of Gaddafi’s apparatus of coercion will prompt the collapse of the regime from within, through the defection or mutiny by many of those still propping up the tyrant. Indeed, Sunday’s strike on a target within Gaddafi’s compound may have been intended as a psychological blow to that effect.

But air power, even when used specifically to “decapitate” a regime, has rarely succeeded in dislodging an enemy without the introduction — or at least the threat, as in the case of Kosovo — of ground forces. The optimistic view would see an upgraded rebel army as the providing the necessary ground force, under de facto air cover, to storm Tripoli and finish the job. But it’s far from that simple: Not only has the Security Council not authorized a war to oust Gaddafi (resolution 1973 is designed to stop the Libyan civil war, not to finish it), but it has also expressly forbade foreign governments from arming Libya’s rebels. (Correction: Dr. Gary Sick at Columbia informs me that the provision in resolution 1970 that would prohibit arming the rebels is, in fact, expressly overruled by a provision of resolution 1973 authorizing “all necessary means” of protecting civilians from attack.)


Any expansion of the goals of the mission will likely erode Arab support. Indeed, on Sunday Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, who had supported the creation of a no-fly zone, on Sunday balked at the nature of the operation he was seeing, and threatened to reconsider the League’s support. Other officials of the body quickly made clear that it continues to support the operation, and that the Secretary General was speaking for himself. Moussa, of course, is hyper sensitive to Arab public opinion, right now, having thrown his hat in the ring as a candidate for September’s presidential election in Egypt. But that skittishness suggests Arab public opinion could quickly turn against the operation as images emerge of Arab soldiers obliterated by Western weaponry, or of accidental civilian casualties from air strikes.

Gaddafi’s initial declaration that he would observe a cease-fire on Friday, even though patently cynical, suggests that at some point he may engage more seriously on that track as a tactic, to prolong and complicate the engagement. And, unnable to use his air force, or, increasingly, his armor in aggressive fashion, Gaddafi has moved to arm many more of his supporters – and there are indications that he still has many thousands of those. Even though the air campaign has evened up the odds, the fight could become increasingly bloody at close quarters in the days ahead. And if the regime survives the “shock and awe” of the initial air campaign, the Western powers that will find themselves locked in to a longer and more complex war than they intended, and whose goals are not clearly defined.

Sarkozy’s “door open to diplomacy” comment, even if that may have been designed mostly to reassure anxious Security Council member states, may also become increasingly important in the days and weeks ahead, because right now Gaddafi has little incentive to back down and go quietly, because that would earn him little more than a trial date at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. If his regime survives the initial air campaign, ending the war could require that, at the very least, he be given a diplomatic exit strategy. And the failure of “shock and awe” to bring him down could bring on a protracted military and diplomatic tussle reminiscent of the Balkans in the early ’90s.

Even if no American ground forces are committed to Libya, it’s increasingly unlikely that the conflict will end without some foreign boots on the ground.  The Libyan state has essentially collapsed into two rival administrations, each having armed many thousands of their supporters. Even in the best-case outcome, foreign troops will likely be needed on the ground to enforce and maintain the peace until a new Libyan state can created. That’s not a job the U.S. or any other Western country would want, and most Arab countries may have more pressing concerns on their minds. (Keep an eye on Turkey to become the key player in the coming days and weeks.)

The Libyan war, for that is plainly what it is, was launched with neither a clear end game nor a clear strategy. It began as an emergency action to prevent the fall of Benghazi. But now that Western military power has been brought to bear (let’s not kid ourselves that Arab participation is anything much beyond symbolic), Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron could find themselves owning a broken and very dangerous situation on the ground in Libya. Many of the arguments for intervention derived from the Western experience in the Balkans during the 1990s, beginning with the breakup of Yugoslavia and culminating with the Kosovo conflict in 1999. It’s worth remembering, then, that NATO troops were involved in Bosnia for 12 years, and there are still 8,700 NATO troops in Kosovo, which remains a ward of the West.