This Week at War: Libya’s Endgame

President Obama, Muammar Qaddafi and Libya's rebels are all planning their next moves. Whichever side wins, it's the machine mechanics on the ground who probably deserve the credit.


Libya’s rebels scramble to hold out

The armed uprising against Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi appears to be cracking, and it may collapse before U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have sorted out their policies toward the rebellion. Qaddafi, the rebels, and Obama will each have to quickly consider their political and military strategies as what may be the endgame approaches in Libya.

According to the BBC, military forces loyal to Qaddafi have broken through the rebel’s defenses outside Ras Lanuf, the oil town that was the western perimeter of the rebel’s stronghold over the eastern half of Libya. A few days earlier, rebels were ejected from Bin Jawad, the next town further to the west along the coast road. The risk now is that rebel morale and cohesion will shatter and that they will be unable to establish another defensive line before loyalist mechanized forces advance down the coast road toward Benghazi, the capital of the rebellion. Further complicating the rebel’s task is the apparent collapse of rebel resistance in the western town of Zawiya, near Tripoli. Pacification of Zawiya would allow Qaddafi to redeploy reinforcements for the push on Benghazi.

Qaddafi’s key vulnerability at this moment is the ability of his forces to maintain his advantage in mobility. The combatants are fighting down the coast road and the adjoining open terrain between towns. The military advantage will go to the side that keeps its tanks and infantry fighting vehicles — all highly susceptible to breakdowns — repaired and in the fight. Should Qaddafi ultimately win the war, those most deserving of credit might be those contractor mechanics he has undoubtedly hired to keep his armored vehicles running.

Knocked back on its heels and perhaps with its time nearly up, the Libyan resistance has belatedly launched the political element of its strategy. The Libyan National Council, the rebel leadership group, rolled out its members to a Wall Street Journal reporter covering the war from Benghazi. The rebels were careful to put a moderate and technocratic face on their movement. The rebellion scored a success when it convinced the French government to officially recognize it. And in a trip next week to Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has agreed to meet with representatives of Libya’s resistance.

President Barack Obama’s administration has maintained its own resistance to getting involved in the Libyan civil war. According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration has decided to take action in Libya only as a member of a much broader international coalition, for example after intervention has been approved by the Arab League, NATO, or the U.N. Security Council. Approval by these organizations typically requires consensus, which is bad news for the rebels holding out against Qaddafi’s counterattacks.

Obama undoubtedly knows that he will face intense criticism if he stands by while Qaddafi ruthlessly crushes the rebellion. Knowing this, we must presume that outcome, assuming Obama allows it to occur, is part of a larger calculation of risks. What might those calculations be? Topping the list might be that Obama and his advisors have decided that they want to encourage no more rebellions in the Arab world, particularly in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere on the Sunni side of the Persian Gulf. Egypt’s Tahrir Square may have been exhilarating, but Obama and his advisors may now have had enough of that kind of excitement. If it will incentivize tranquility in Riyadh, Obama may be willing to let Qaddafi win this one.

Think grand strategy is too hard? It’s really not, say Kaplan and Kaplan.

The latest issue of the National Interest features an essay on America’s grand strategy by Robert D. Kaplan (recent author of Monsoon and many other books on current history) and Stephen S. Kaplan, who recently retired after a 30-year career at the CIA. Titled America Primed, Kaplan and Kaplan puncture the myth that an effective grand strategy is a puzzle too difficult for Washington’s statesmen to solve. In fact, the Kaplans argue that the grand-strategy puzzle practically solves itself — as long as future U.S. presidents exercise some restraint, prudently tend to their military power, and can finesse a few straightforward dilemmas.

The United States’ paramount geostrategic objective should be to ensure that no one power or alliance of powers effectively dominates Eurasia. What will make grand strategy so easy, they suggest, is that all of the other consequential powers — they mention China, Russia, and India — have problems of their own and possess few of the advantages held by the United States. And competition among Russia, China, and India should ensure that Eurasian power remains divided.

Kaplan and Kaplan explain those strategic advantages the United States enjoys that will keep it on top for many more decades. None of the three aforementioned consequential powers has the global alliance system that the United States has throughout the “Anglosphere,” Europe, and East Asia. Compared with the United States, China, Russia, and India lack the soft-power stature and skills to build such alliances, at least for many years into the future. Best of all, according to the Kaplans, a bit of a growing military menace in China and Russia is actually a good thing from Washington’s perspective; it focuses minds among America’s allies in Asia and Europe and makes them more eager and cooperative partners. For the same reasons, they argue, there is little to fear from Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs — the reaction by America’s Sunni-Arab allies will boost Washington’s influence in the region and may even lead to a rapprochement between Israel and the Arabs.

The Kaplans’ advice for Central Asia is two-fold: Get tough with a misbehaving Pakistan, and get out of Afghanistan, without leaving a mess behind. Here, the Kaplans haven’t figured out the Catch-22 that Afghanistan has become any better than anyone else. The United States can’t get tough with Pakistan while it still has a large army in Afghanistan. But neither do policymakers in Washington seem willing to take the risk of a collapse in Afghanistan even though it is clear they desperately need the $100 billion spent annually in Afghanistan for air and naval modernization in the western Pacific. The Kaplans argue, “[T]he United States can only start to withdraw from Afghanistan, without its current regime being toppled shortly thereafter, if Islamabad fundamentally alters its policy. Pakistan’s military and ISI will not do that without the application of more political and economic pressure.” But Washington cannot apply that pressure while Islamabad controls the supply routes, and thus the war, in Afghanistan. The Kaplans don’t have a convincing answer to this dilemma.

In the Kaplans’ tour of the globe, many of the world’s most significant geopolitical problems, apparently governed by the forces of regional self-interest, seem to practically balance themselves, at least from Washington’s perspective. It would be comforting to think that the American electorate won’t have to reliably elect a succession of Bismarckian geniuses in order to maintain global stability. Unfortunately, it won’t be that easy.

The Kaplans describe what could be an effective operating principle for American grand strategy, namely regional balances around the Eurasian periphery, backstopped by U.S. security agreements with allies in each region.

To make such a system work, U.S. statesmen will have to display wisdom along three dimensions. First, they will have to ensure that the United States will continue to be able to afford the required military power. Second, they will have to convince allies that the United States still has the will to use its military power while at the same time not squandering that power fruitlessly. Third, U.S. statesmen will have to avoid the problem of “moral hazard” with its allies, convincing them to make significant contributions to the regional balancing system while those allies simultaneously know that the United States will be their backstop (or “bailout”).

These are timeless dilemmas for which neither the Kaplans nor anyone else has written a formula. Future U.S. presidents might not have to all be Bismarcks. But neither can they count on grand strategy taking care of itself.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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