Mission Not Accomplished

Obama's Libyan adventure is already a failure, and it will likely get worse.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The war in Libya is a good war — or at least, it should and could be. But it is certainly not a smart war and may well turn into a debacle. Bringing down Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s tyranny would be a major strategic and humanitarian victory in the Middle East. That achievement would be even more stunning if a democratic government, brought to power by Libyans themselves, replaced Qaddafi. Although the Libyan rebels will undoubtedly need Western help — and are rightly receiving it — the credit will be theirs: The American Revolutionaries needed French arms to defeat the British, but French help did not tarnish their victory.

Yet the chances of such favorable outcomes have been diminished by America’s own president. Barack Obama, despite his forceful speech on Monday, March 28, is proving to be singularly ungifted in executive talent, let alone in the qualities that are needed in the leader of the Western alliance. Obama’s Libya policy has been marked by an erratic, improvisational, and amateurish character. Already the administration is quietly warning that the war may drag on through the rest of the year, if not beyond it. While Obama might claim success early on, given the vague mission of protecting civilians, we should not be fooled into thinking that an ongoing civil war represents a victory for American arms. Indeed, a prolonged stalemate would be a disaster. Wounded, vengeful, but undefeated, Qaddafi would pose a greater danger than ever. He could resume his practice of terrorist attacks on Western targets, working perhaps through jihadi elements such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, hundreds of whose members he has released from prison.

A protracted civil war in Libya could have effects beyond its borders. It could lead competing outside powers — France, Turkey, or even China — to back different Libyan factions. U.S. forces and resources would be tied down even as the United States seeks to wind down in Iraq and defeat a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. On the other hand, a premature exit would undermine American credibility in a region that already doubts Obama’s steadfastness. Just as the administration’s mishandling of last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico revealed its ineptitude in domestic matters, its mismanagement of the Libya intervention may become emblematic of its haplessness in foreign affairs.

The Obama administration’s most glaring mistake in its approach to Libya is the central weight it has given to the United Nations. Hanging America’s hat on U.N. approval has caused a mismatch between Obama’s stated policy goal — that Qaddafi must "go" — and the limited means provided by U.N. approval for economic sanctions and civilian protections. Even at this early stage of the conflict, Obama’s policy has created a large gap between U.S. strategic ends and U.N.-authorized means.

First, Obama has announced that in no circumstances will the United States introduce ground troops into Libya. Even if the United States was not planning to take that step, it was an unpardonable mistake for the president to have said so publicly. As simple international bargaining theory demonstrates, the threat of escalating a conflict by a party with superior resources should lead to a more favorable settlement. The threat of invasion might have convinced Qaddafi to leave power or his generals to take matters into their own hands. Obama’s announcement to the contrary can only have strengthened Qaddafi’s resolve to hang on. Taking the option of ground troops off the table at the very outset of hostilities helpfully informed an enemy of U.S. limits and undercut the coalition’s position.

Furthermore, if America’s strategic goal is — as Obama proclaims — the overthrowing of the Libyan regime, it may well need to introduce ground forces to do that, especially if NATO’s use of air power remains highly circumscribed. (NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said that the alliance "will implement all aspects of the U.N. resolution. Nothing more, nothing less.") Air power is useful to a point: It can disrupt Qaddafi’s logistics and prevent the movement of his forces across the vast desert spaces between Libya’s cities. But it cannot take and hold ground. Air power is far more likely to succeed if combined with significant military operations on land — as it was in the two Iraq wars. NATO’s air power did not bring down Slobodan Milosevic in the Kosovo war. It may have forced his withdrawal from Kosovo, but even there it was supported by the land forces of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Without the use of significant land forces — whether provided by better armed and trained rebels, more defectors from Qaddafi’s side, NATO, or the United States — stalemate rather than regime change seems the likely result. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned, the meager forces fielded by the rebel government alone cannot overcome the superior firepower of the Qaddafi military.

Yet Obama and his senior advisors have endlessly repeated that the United States will play only a marginal role in NATO’s future military efforts in Libya: The country’s main missions going forward will apparently be limited to reconnaissance, search and rescue, and communications jamming. In its desperation to hand off responsibility, the United States has again undercut Western efforts and fed Qaddafi’s hopes of survival. Without substantial U.S. involvement, will the British, French, and other NATO air forces arrayed against Qaddafi be sufficient to bring him down? 

To be sure, even without significant U.S. "kinetic" support, NATO is — on paper — more than equal to the task. Qaddafi’s army had a mere 50,000 poorly trained and equipped troops at the start of the rebellion (half of them draftees), and many of those troops defected to the insurgents. Qaddafi deliberately kept his military small and weak, seeking to avoid a coup d’état like the one that brought him to power in 1969. True, Qaddafi has bolstered his forces by hiring mercenaries (allegedly paying them from the large gold reserves held in Libya’s Central Bank). He can also count on special forces such as the estimated 10,000 Russian-trained troops commanded by his son Khamis (who is rumored to have been killed). In size, equipment, and quality, his military assets do not hold a candle to those of the Western armies now massed in the region, but without U.S. military leadership it seems unlikely that NATO countries have the ability or the stomach to fight it out on the ground. This, after all, is the lesson of the wars of the 1990s in the Balkans, where European countries could not stop a gruesome civil war on their borders without American intervention. 

The administration’s attachment to the sanitized air power version of warfare has it ignoring immediate, practical steps it could take to strike at Qaddafi. According to the Treasury Department, the U.S. government has frozen at least $33 billion in Libyan assets — the largest freeze ever under any U.S. sanctions order. The administration should use these funds to bribe Qaddafi’s generals or mercenaries to overthrow him or to at least supply the rebels with heavy weapons. (The United States’ support today need not make the same mistake it did in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when it arguably provided weapons to groups that would later morph into the Taliban, other Afghan warlords, and al Qaeda. The United States does not need to supply the Libyan rebels — who are fighting a small, relatively unsophisticated loyalist army — with the same amount and quality of weapons as it did to Afghan rebels opposing the top-flight Soviet military.) Regardless, Qaddafi’s now-frozen assets are Libyan, not American. And if the Obama administration were to recognize the rebel movement, or elements of it, as the government of Libya, that body might permit the use of unblocked assets for such war-related purposes. Moreover, recognizing the rebels — as France and Qatar have already done — would demonstrate the strength of America’s commitment to bring Qaddafi down.

Worst of all, perhaps, has been Obama’s determination to ensure the United Nations has played a leading role in the Libya intervention. As a result of an embarrassing, last-minute policy switch on the administration’s part, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 — which authorizes the use of "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan "civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack." Although lauded as a diplomatic victory for the administration, the resolution’s main effect is to straitjacket U.S. military and policy choices. By its own terms, the resolution does not authorize the coalition to bring Qaddafi down. Yet that is precisely the proclaimed policy objective of the United States, Britain, and France. For the sake of obtaining the Security Council’s approval, the Obama administration has denied itself and its coalition partners the full use of the military instrument to achieve its core policy goal.

The resolution does not in terms authorize NATO or the coalition to train the rebel forces or supply them with weaponry. Some coalition members have therefore questioned whether they may lawfully provide aid. NATO has not authorized its forces to join with the rebels if they advance on cities in western Libya that are still in Qaddafi’s grip. The resolution even seems to require NATO to resist any rebel attacks on Qaddafi’s forces if those attacks are likely to bring about collateral civilian casualties. Incredible as it may sound, CNN reports that a "senior U.S. administration official … did not rule out the possibility of an attack on the rebels if they were to go on the offensive and strike cities with civilian populations, now held by pro-Gadhafi forces." So if rebel forces are poised to attack Qaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli, the resolution may require NATO to take sides against the rebels, if (as is inevitable) their attack endangers the city’s civilian population!

The resolution also displays other, less visible flaws. For instance, it does not authorize an attempt to seize Libyan oil fields still under Qaddafi’s control. But even though government forces have recently been pushed out of the oil-rich eastern part of Libya, there remains a serious risk that Qaddafi might, in desperation, destroy them in order to punish his Western enemies. He has already threatened to turn the entire Mediterranean Sea into a theater of war, and he has the example of Saddam Hussein’s destruction of Kuwait’s oil fields in 1991 as precedent. Yet the United Nations has given no permission to guard against this obvious threat.

The resolution also does not authorize NATO to take out Qaddafi’s stockpile of chemical weapons (unless, perhaps, he signals the intent to use them against his own people). Even assuming that Qaddafi lacks the means to deliver these weapons, their destruction ought to be a primary objective for NATO, not only for the sake of the Libyan people, but for the safety of coalition forces in the area. If a democratic government succeeds Qaddafi, it would not certainly need chemical weapons; if Islamic radicals succeed him, we should ensure that these weapons do not fall into their hands.

Considering Resolution 1973’s handcuffs, it is likely that NATO will eventually either ignore it or construe it disingenuously. U.N. approval has virtually no offsetting benefits, except for a thin veneer of international legality for a no-fly zone, an embargo, and limited efforts to protect Libyan civilians. It only provides countries like Russia and China the opportunity to attack American intervention by claiming it runs beyond the writ of some amorphous "international community" whose will is expressed in a U.N. resolution — a resolution that pretends that the goals, strategies, and tactics of war can be reduced to a clear legal document. But this imposes a straitjacket on a coalition military faced with unforeseen and constantly changing circumstances and conjures written political agreement where in fact there is none.

Obama accepted these political and military handicaps, worrying far more about winning the approval of the United Nations than of the U.S. Congress. Although it is clear that the president has the constitutional authority to act on his own in this instance, it makes good political sense to get Congress’s support. But the current administration, like Bill Clinton’s and Jimmy Carter’s administrations before it, seems swayed by the view, born of the Vietnam War, that American power in the world is the problem, not the solution. Rather than use military force in pursuit of clear American interests, Obama and his aides want to submerge U.S. action into a dense network of international institutions and multilateral coalitions. Only by taking a second seat to France, Britain, or the Arab League can the United States assure the world, and its own people, that it is acting out of altruistic rather than purely American national interests and doesn’t covet a third Middle East war.

Thanks to Resolution 1973’s restraints on the Libyan intervention, the administration will soon discover that placing its hopes on the United Nations was a mistake. It is an institution as formal as it is powerless — bound up by a huge, wasteful bureaucracy and antiquated legal rules that only prevent the great powers of today from using force to actually stop human rights crises, as with the civil war in the Ivory Coast. The United Nations’ fundamental principle is to declare the "territorial integrity" and "political independence" of each country and to prohibit intervention in the internal affairs of member states. In its eyes, North Korea, the most brutal totalitarian government in the world, is the equal of the United States, which has done more than any country in the postwar period to protect freedom and democracy.

The U.N. charter contains even deeper flaws. Its provision for the use of force is identical to law enforcement: that force can only be used against an attacker; otherwise, the state has a monopoly on violence. The charter shares the same goal as domestic law — to drive violence down to zero. But this is a mistake on two grounds. First, there is no world government that can effectively police countries from using force against each other. Second, the optimal use of force in international politics should not be zero; instead, it should be permitted where its use would increase global welfare.

The charter and its obsolete procedures ignore that today’s world faces problems that are worse than war. Failed states, massive human rights disasters, rogue nations pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and international terrorist groups all threaten greater harm than those of military intervention. These are not hypotheticals; we need only reflect on the costs of recent U.N. inaction: Saddam Hussein killed hundreds of thousands of his own citizens, some with weapons of mass destruction. Rwanda was rent by genocide. Serbia killed thousands in its campaign of ethnic cleansing. And hundreds of thousands have died in conflicts in Sudan and central Africa.

Certainly, the United States does not have an obligation to intervene everywhere to stop all wars, fix all failed states, remove all dictators, and pursue all terrorists groups. But the international political and legal system creates perverse incentives for the United States and its allies to avoid those cases where they can do good. Proponents of the United Nations may argue that Resolution 1973 shows that the global body has progressed — that it has learned from history and will not shy from authorizing the use of force in situations where humanitarian issues compel action. They are wrong. The milquetoast authorization of limited combat highlights that the opposite is true.

Without a clear remit for a satisfactory endgame in Libya, the likelihood that we will find ourselves with a divided, chaotic state in that country is high; the likelihood that future necessary action to prevent such eventualities will be handcuffed is almost a certainty. It is high time to replace the U.N. Charter with international rules that encourage countries to end human rights abuses, fix failed states, and oppose rogue nations and terrorist groups.

Instead, the United States and its allies should form a Concert of Democracies. No international bureaucracy or complicated rules on the use of force are needed. Instead, the great democracies should collectively decide, case by case, whether to intervene. A concert would allow these countries to share the costs of intervention. And it should exclude countries like Russia and China; they should have no voice until they show a corresponding desire to shoulder global responsibilities.

The one positive in all this? If Libya at least brings about a rude awakening for the Obama administration on the follies of multilateralism and leads to the emergence of a new international security system, it will have done far more good than simply dragging the United States into a civil war.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola