Libyan Endgames

by Victor Davis Hanson

The president speaks in a bit on Libya. I hope he’s aware that there are really only two strategies open to the administration, one good, the other not so: 

I. Get Qaddafi ASAP: A quick ratcheting up of the air campaign to go well beyond a no-fly zone (we, or our allies, have already been doing that at times) to destroy as many assets as we can of Qaddafi’s clique, along with supplying arms to the rebels — in the hopes (a) that Britain and France can help us deal with the PR problems of exceeding the (apparently) important U.N. and Arab League no-fly-zone-only mandate, and (b) that pro-constitutional rebels outnumber and are more powerful than the sharia Islamists in their midst. There would be good reason to believe that such a course might follow the sort of NATO campaign that Clinton led successfully in Kosovo (in this regard the death of Richard Holbrooke was especially untimely, because he was the one seasoned diplomat in the administration who might have brought some coherence to the crisis based on his prior record in the Balkans). 

II. Endlessly Patrolling: Or, alternatively, we would follow the international mandates to the letter and only patrol the skies of Libya. I think that would quickly prove to be Orwellian because Qaddafi can win without air assets; the so-called rebels would resent seeing allied planes aimlessly circling the skies to ensure that now largely non-existent planes don’t take off (we would be following the template of the 12-year Iraq no-fly zone more than the 11-week NATO bombing of Milosevic); our allies would quickly tire and peel off; and d) each day that Qaddafi survived he would gain greater fides in the Middle East against the crusaders.

I take it that these two alternative options are not on the table: (a) falsely claiming a sort of victory, in the pattern of Lebanon 1983 or Mogadishu 1993, and retreating in shame; or (b) sending 3,000–5,000 ground troops to take out Qaddafi’s troops, turning over the country to the rebels, ensuring there are not grotesque, publicized reprisals, mob-like violence, or Islamist coups, and then organizing peace-keeping until some sort of provisional government arises.

Based on the last 30 years of ground and air intervention in the Middle East (Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, etc.), we should always assume the following:

— Those we are seeking to help are usually the weaker of the two parties, and may at some point make deals with our enemies by deprecating the hand that feeds them.

— With the exception of Britain, any allies, European or Arab, will not stay to the end, and reappear only when it is in their interests, either in the financial or political sense.

— We can take whatever level of public support there was in the beginning and after three months halve it; the most prominent politicians and pundits who championed the intervention will be the most likely, as support withers and the unexpected becomes the norm, to claim the intervention was a mistake, they were misled, or their brilliant original intervention was screwed up the administration’s disappointing (fill in the blanks).

— When it is all over, the president always takes a hit: Carter’s screwed-up rescue operation, Bush I with Kurds in the cold on the hills, Bush II with the Iraq insurgency, Clinton with American bodies dragged through Mogadishu, Reagan’s empty shelling after the Marine barracks, etc. Democratic presidents operate without much of an antiwar movement either in Congress or in the public, but their failures tend to confirm, fairly or not, inherent ill-at-ease with and incompetence in the use of force.

— Gas prices will either rise or be predicted to rise.

Given the above, and given the fact that this intervention was a bad idea, poorly articulated and not thought out from the very beginning, the best denouement is to get Qaddafi and get him quickly. Let us hope that, whatever the president says, he has advisers who see what must be done.

The Corner

The one and only.