Micah Zenko

Think Again: Libya

More than a month after the first bombs fell on Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces, the assumptions that led the United States into the war have mostly been proven wrong -- and a strategy to end it is still nowhere in sight.


"Allies Will Pick Up the Slack."

Don’t bet on it. When the United States and its allies went to war in Libya five and a half weeks ago, it wasn’t supposed to be much of a war at all. U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to intervene was based on the assumption that nearby states more directly impacted by the state of affairs in Libya, such as Britain and France, would lead the charge. The United States, according to Obama, would lead with "days, not weeks" of military action, thus "shaping the conditions for the international community to act together." Many in Washington, though aware that the United States has unique capabilities essential to early stages of no-fly zone implementation, assumed it would be easy to pass the buck. As vocal intervention proponent Sen. Lindsay Graham would later concede, "When we call[ed] for a no-fly zone, we didn’t mean our planes."

Much of this assumption had to do with the Arab League. On March 12, the regional organization threw its weight behind the Libyan revolution, denouncing "the fatal violations and serious crimes at the hands of Libyan authorities" and calling on the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over the country. "The main priority right now is to stop the deadly situation," Secretary-General Amr Moussa said at the time. U.S. officials highlighted the league’s March 12 resolution as an endorsement of action from the region; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to "a sense of urgency that was precipitated by the Arab League’s courageous stand."

But when the bombs actually started to fall on Libya — as they invariably do when enforcing a no-fly zone — the league hastily pulled back, and Moussa harangued allied forces for allegedly causing "the deaths and injuries of many Libyan civilians." Some of the league’s member states remain engaged in the campaign but even within this coalition of the barely willing, Arab military contributions have been meager. Only Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are helping to enforce the no-fly zone, though they are stopping short of providing sorely needed close air support (which would entail using combat helicopters and aircraft against loyalists forces that are operating within close proximity to armed rebels or civilians). Most of the work has been done instead by Britain, France, Norway, and the United States.

These details are part of a worrying big picture, one in which there is lamentably little political will on the part of the allies to see the Libya campaign through to its conclusion. At some point, the combat stage of the civil war will end and the international community — be it NATO, the Arab League, and/or the African Union — will bear responsibility for deploying the stabilization forces required to keep the peace. This may prove a tall order. As Vice President Joe Biden pointed out last week, "It is bizarre to suggest that NATO and the rest of the world lacks the capacity to deal with Libya." Maybe so, but individually and collectively they clearly lack the will.

"Military Force Was Necessary to Send a Message to Arab Dictators."

They didn’t get it. Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s decision to cling to power by force happened at a delicate moment in the Arab Spring. The previous month, street protesters had ousted Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. But both leaders, however odious, responded to demonstrations with something less than total brutality, and ultimately left voluntarily (if grudgingly). As the revolutions spread elsewhere in the region, a grim lesson emerged from Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s downfalls: The best way to hold onto power is to crack down violently against protesters sooner rather than later, before a rebellion gets out of hand. Qaddafi happened to be the first autocrat to put the theory to the test.

In response to Qaddafi’s brutality, interventionists argued, preserving space for peaceful revolution in the Arab world — or, at the very least, preventing copycat massacres — required the international community to make an example of the colonel. In the absence of intervention in Libya, Obama warned in his March 28 speech, "democratic impulses … would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power." New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed that "the message would have gone out to all dictators that ruthlessness works."

But the region’s undemocratic rulers seem to have drawn that lesson anyway. Most of this year’s uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have been characterized by security forces reacting to largely peaceful civilian demonstrations with force. On March 18, attacks by President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime in Yemen killed 52 civilian protesters; since then, more than 60 more people — including 26 children — have died at the hands of the regime’s security forces, according to Amnesty International and UNICEF. In Bahrain, human rights groups report government forces killing at least 26 people, imprisoning more than 300, and holding 35 without due process. In Syria, demonstrations over the past month against President Bashar al-Assad have resulted in security forces killing at least 400 people, according to Amnesty International.

What the interventionists failed to grasp was that military force, in Libya or anywhere else, is an ineffective tool for sending messages to states not directly in the crosshairs. It is also the height of American arrogance to believe that dictator’s will interpret distant military signals "correctly" — meaning that they accurately understand the signal conveyed — and then react in the way that Washington policymakers wish. As Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in 2009 about the military’s strategic communication efforts, "We’ve come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect. They are not."

"This War Starts and Ends With a No-Fly Zone."

We’ll see about that. In response to the armed rebellion, Qaddafi made very limited use of his airpower capabilities. Although Human Rights Watch reported a fighter jet firing one missile near a mixed crowd of rebels and civilians in Brega on March 2, most of the reported targets struck from the air were massed rebel movements, military barracks, and weapons depots. (A surprising number of bombs fell in the middle of the desert, suggesting disloyalty among the regime’s pilots.) Nevertheless, interventionists settled on a no-fly zone as the preferred means of protecting civilians. As Sen. John Kerry acknowledged in an early endorsement of the idea, "Imposing a no-fly zone would not be a panacea. It probably would not tip the balance if Libya deteriorates into a full-scale civil war. But it would eliminate airstrikes and save the lives of civilians."

In reality, the tactic was selected not for its effectiveness at eliminating airstrikes (which it did), but rather because it required the least commitment. Even before the intervention, the overwhelming majority of attacks by the Qaddafi regime against civilians were conducted by Libyan ground forces, making a no-fly zone irrelevant to protecting vulnerable populations. Predictably, the regime has adapted well-known and time-tested defensive countermeasures in response to the no-fly zone and the NATO airstrikes; its military remains effective and lethal. Qaddafi’s forces have traded tanks and armored personnel carriers for unmarked pickup trucks and SUVs indistinguishable from those used by rebels, and deployed combat capabilities in populated urban areas. As one Pentagon official aptly noted earlier this month, "What this shows is that you cannot guarantee tipping the balance of ground operations only with bombs and missiles from the air."

The limited commitment to the no-fly zone and nothing more stands in glaring contradiction not only to NATO’s stated aim of civilian protection in Libya, but also to history. In Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 and southern and northern Iraq from 1991 to 2003, no-fly zones or even the limited application of airpower proved inadequate to the task of stopping military aggression against civilians. The civil wars in the former Yugoslavia only ended through a ground offensive carried out by Croats and Bosnian Muslims and supported by artillery shelling from British, Dutch, and French forces deployed on the ground, as well as nearly two weeks of NATO airstrikes against 48 Bosnia Serb targets. In Iraq, it took extensive airpower and — ultimately — an  invasion of some 150,000 ground troops to neutralize Saddam Hussein.

"We Can Get Rid of Qaddafi Without a Full-Blown Invasion."

Wrong. Many pundits and policymakers misread the rebels’ initial advances toward Tripoli as an indication of sufficient military capability to bring down Qaddafi. My Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams, for instance, asserted that only a "small amount of effort [is] needed from the United States to ensure that Qaddafi is defeated." Libya’s rebels encouraged this notion; one purported spokesperson for the rebels’ Transitional National Council claimed on March 13, "We are capable of controlling all of Libya, but only after the no-fly zone is imposed."

As veteran journalist David Wood reported this month, such hopeful thinking also infected the Obama administration during pre-intervention debates. Tension developed between the White House and the Pentagon over the former’s insistence that the latter "come up with a low-cost regime-change plan for Libya," even as military leaders insisted that wasn’t possible. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee just four days before the intervention, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told lawmakers that a no-fly zone "would not be sufficient" to reverse the momentum on the battlefield in favor of the rebels.

The massive disparity between a degraded but still well-armed military and an underequipped, voluntary rebel force means that what was true five weeks ago remains the case today: Substantial intervention of foreign forces is the only way to ensure that the NATO-led coalition achieves its ultimate strategic objective, which, despite the language of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, is clearly Qaddafi’s removal from power. The rebels simply don’t have enough firepower or training to do the job themselves, as their repeated retreats from Ras Lanuf and points east have all too painfully demonstrated.

Meanwhile, Western officials remain stuck in a contradictory position: The maximalist objective — "Qaddafi must go" — may only be pursued through the incremental application of minimalist tactics, i.e. "no boots on the ground." On April 26, the White House authorized the release of $25 million to draw down nonlethal aid from Pentagon stockpiles, which will reportedly include medical supplies, uniforms, boots, tents, radios, and halal meals. Will that rid us of Qaddafi? A recent op-ed by retired Gen. James Dubik highlighted the absurdity. He proposed that the United States "finish the job" simply by sending military advisers — who are already there, according to allied governments — and combat air controllers, who are assuredly there as well to direct close air support. Neither will bring about regime change, as we have seen.

Qaddafi is most assuredly a vicious tyrant, and his ouster is a worthy goal. But it will not be achieved through incremental aid to the rebels and intermittent decapitation attempts. Yet we are where we are. Given its current level of commitment, the United States should continue to use its military capabilities to support the no-fly zone, monitor and publicize killings of civilians by Qaddafi’s forces or the rebels, and respond with direct force to prevent or mitigate any mass atrocities. More importantly, however, the administration should work toward a negotiated end to the civil war, while starting to plan for the U.S. military assets, humanitarian assistance, and financial aid required to keep any peace.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola