Obama’s 21st-Century War

In America's latest wars, leaving -- not winning -- seems to be the yardstick for success. But that goal is all the more difficult if the objectives and reasons for getting in aren't clear from the outset.

Fadi Tarapolsi holds up a pre-Gaddafi Libyan flag while holding vigil in front of the White House March 28, 2011 in Washington, DC. Tarapolsi and his parents have been living in exile in the United States from Libya more than 30 years ago. He said he has held vigil at the White House every night for the past five weeks and will continue to do so until Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi is out of power.

With the exception of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, 20th-century wars haven’t been kind to American presidents; 21st-century wars promise to be even crueler.

Welcome to Libya, Mr. President. You’ve got your very own 21st-century war, where the goals are as diffuse as the means at your disposal to accomplish them. Having chosen to double down in Afghanistan, you now own two of them — Afghanistan and Libya. To get out of the former, your military advisors argued, you first had to get in deeper. And you chose to do so.

In Libya, another war of choice, you are now confronted with many of the same contradictions, impossible choices, and hard decisions that these other conflicts pose. Yes, Libya isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan; it may well be a good war fought for sound moral and humanitarian purposes — but it’s also a complicated war. To put it mildly, like the other two conflicts, getting in may be a lot easier than getting out, despite all rhetoric to the contrary.

America’s 21st-century wars are all different, but they do have similar challenges. The standard for success in these wars isn’t whether the United States can win decisively, but when it can leave. And extrication and exit, the domestic headline of these conflicts, is a tactical nightmare, particularly if Washington wants to persuade its allies and adversaries that it plans to stay until it prevails.

Then there is the question of clarity of objective. What were U.S. objectives in Iraq? To destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction? Get rid of him? Build a new Iraq? Promote a democracy in the heart of the Middle East? All of the above?

In Afghanistan, the objective has gone from getting rid of al Qaeda and weakening the Taliban to a very thinly disguised effort to build a nation, create good government, end corruption, and train security and military forces that can stand up on their own. In Libya, though, it has never been quite clear from the outset. Is America there to protect civilians? Empower the opposition? Or defeat Qaddafi and usher in a new, democratic Libya?

Without clear objectives, it’s nearly impossible to bring the necessary means into play to achieve them. How do you know whether the costs of what you plan to do are compelling, realistic, or worth the effort if you’re unclear as to the goal? And how do you craft a strategy to get out? Afghanistan is now the longest war in U.S. history. That metric alone seems to validate the notion that the United States had no real strategy or sense of what it was getting into.

There’s also the question of the political objectives in all these wars. Military power is but a means to an end in all conflicts. Sadly, America’s success in 21st-century wars depends on the construction — or perhaps reconstruction — of nations. And how can the United States manage that when it’s already planning an exit? Success depends on creating legitimacy, authority, security, and enlightened leadership — elements that must be produced from within, not from an outside power whose involvement (no matter how well-intentioned) will always be viewed with great suspicion and whose staying power is questionable.

President Barack Obama’s problem is compounded by the fact that he is dealing with leaders who will follow their own interests, not his. No surprise there. But in Hamid Karzai, Nouri al-Maliki, and now Libya (with Lord knows who or what will be in charge), Washington must work with leaders driven first and foremost by their own survival and pushed and pulled by the tribal, provincial, and sectarian demands of their neighborhood. In Iraq and Afghanistan, these countries also face neighboring states that continue to meddle and play on internal disharmony.

Libya, Obama’s war, was supposed to be different; and in many respects, it is. A U.N. Security Council resolution, NATO and Arab League support, a limited humanitarian mission, no American boots on the ground, and a shared responsibility for military action was supposed to make this easier.

Yet even this limited conflict has messy similarities to the other two wars in which the United States is currently engaged: lack of clarity about the objective, a remit for the protection of civilians without the means to ensure their safety, success dependent on people it doesn’t know and can’t trust, and a public at home that clearly does not see this as a compelling war, worthy of sustained expenditure of lives and treasure. And unless Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime suddenly falls or international efforts produce a negotiated settlement that ousts him from Libya, America is in for a prolonged slog — and, more than likely, will bear more than a little responsibility for abetting a divided, dysfunctional country embroiled in a messy, murky civil war.

What is clear is that Obama has launched a war of choice, largely for humanitarian purposes. It may yet prove to be a good war, but it is already a messy one. A lack of clarity at the outset has certainly not helped. If it all works out, at an acceptable cost, the president will be judged a foreign-policy genius; if he gets stuck in a prolonged stalemate he’ll be the goat. The sad fact is that right now, much like with Afghanistan and Iraq, he may have already lost the ability to shape the outcome.

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Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2
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