The Obama administration’s Libyan strategy is a paradox — resulting from the president’s belatedly announcing that Moammar Qaddafi must go, using military force against him, and then denying that our objective is to see him leave. The president seems more knowledgeable about the tournament chances of two dozen college basketball teams than he does about the Libyan labyrinth. So let us review what follows from a campaign that has not been approved by Congress and is not supported by the American people — but which we must now hope works, given the commitment of American troops.
The Obama administration, after over two weeks of unrest in Libya, grandly declared that Qaddafi had to go. Why? I think because it seemed then almost certain that the rebels were just about to throw him out. We did not wish to seem calculating, opportunistic, and on the wrong side of history, as we had when we belatedly piggy-backed on the rather easy departures of dictators/not dictators — and former allies — Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
But any student of the Middle East could have reminded the president that Qaddafi is not Mubarak or Ben Ali, but more akin to Ahmadinejad, Assad, the Taliban, or Saddam Hussein. Tyrants of that stripe don’t leave when told to. They equate exile with a noose. Such thugs stay in power until they are killed or driven out by overwhelming military force — usually well beyond what dissidents and insurgents can muster.
After nearly three months, there is also still no typology, even if informal, offered of Middle Eastern unrest. The Obama administration has not explained how our muscularity with Libya fits into our larger policy of embracing “outreach” to Syria, not “meddling” in Iran, and keeping silent about Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain and about the popular unrest in the Gulf and Jordan. Where do we intervene in the region, for what and on behalf of whom, and how and for how long?
AIMS AND OBJECTIVES
We dream of all sorts of things in Libya. I know that because I have heard about the coalition’s objectives from generals, administration officials, and representatives of our allies: We wish only to impose a no-fly zone that will prevent the regime from using aircraft against the rebels. But since aircraft are not essential to a Qaddafi victory, we may attack Libyan armor, infantry, and artillery from the air, either through nocturnal cruise-missile attacks or by wink-and-nod European air strikes dependent on American protection and guidance. Since Qaddafi per se is not the target of our attacks, and since we have ruled out the use of ground troops and regime change though force, we hope he will leave of his own volition. But to make him leave, we need to see him militarily defeated by the rebels, who are incapable of that mission without around-the-clock destruction of Libya’s military — officially beyond the administration’s stated aims. Again, we have ruled out the use of ground troops, but if someone else wishes to insert them to coordinate with our air strikes, then all the better.
What are we left with? A mission that is part Black Hawk Down, part the twelve-year no-fly zone in Iraq, part working with insurgents as in the 2002 removal of the Taliban, and part Bill Clinton’s various air campaigns over the Balkans. So far, no one has agreed on any objective other than that Qaddafi should not be killing his opponents.
Is he to be gone? If so, how soon and replaced by whom or what? The Libyan military? Westernized intellectuals and professionals? “Secular” Muslim Brotherhood types? Former jihadists whose experience was killing Americans in Iraq? Or is American success defined by rendering Qaddafi impotent and a rebel enclave safe, in the same way that for over a decade the Kurds carved out sanctuary from a closely monitored Saddam?