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?
What toppled the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, Noriega, and the thugs in Grenada was either ground troops or the threat of their imminent arrival — but so far we have ruled out using such assets. So we call bombing Libyans from the air a “no-fly zone,” and spend far more time assuring the world what we are not going to do than explaining why we will do what will work.
The administration is understandably uneasy about a third war against Middle Eastern Muslims, so it wishes to wage it beneath a multilateral veneer. We praise European participation but assume most of the firepower will come from the United States. France has one small aircraft carrier, Britain none, and the Arab world few, if any, planes that could even get to Libya and operate there on their own.
Obama’s strategy is far different from Truman’s in Korea or the two Bushes’ in Iraq: There the coalitions were predicated on the clear knowledge that the U.S. would bear the vast portion of the military costs, take political responsibility, accept the ensuing global criticism — and spell out the mission’s aims and methods in advance. But in Libya, we are a coalition of the sneaky — stealthily doing the firing and killing, but palming off the “credit” onto others. Europeans and Arabs are to feel satisfied that they “won” in Libya, when someone else ensures the victory; Americans are to be relieved that someone else prevailed in Libya, when in fact our own forces guaranteed it.
When we predicate the lawfulness of our mission on Arab League and United Nations approval, we live or die with such fickle sanctions. So the Arab League suddenly screams that it approved a no-fly zone but not the actual bombing of ground targets that was broadcast on global television. Do we now stop and ask it to reconsider, or drop the pretext of Arab support? Apparently, the U.S. was supposed to fly an endless beat over Libyan skies, but not to blast apart pro-Qaddafi Libyans from a safe distance out in the Mediterranean Sea.
THE POLITICAL CALCULUS
Like most Democratic wartime presidents, Obama accepts that he has far greater leeway to use force than would a Republican president; he appears to bomb reluctantly as a liberal, in a way that supposedly blood-and-guts conservatives enjoy. And he is the un-Bush, championing a reset diplomacy whose cornerstone was not fighting wars against Middle Eastern Muslims on vague notions of national security and democratization. Yet a liberal attack on Obama over Libya would endanger his progressive domestic agenda. Add that all up, and there are no real anti-interventionist protests of the sort that destroyed the Bush administration — reminding us that the problem for liberals was not the Iraq War per se, but the fact that it was George Bush who oversaw it.
Moreover, Democrats and liberals are eager to restore their national-security credentials after being burned by first calling for intervention in Iraq (they thought it would be as painless as 1999 in Kosovo or 2001 in Afghanistan) and then bailing out when things got messy. Barack Obama also believes that his mixed racial ancestry, Muslim patrimony, anti-Bush proclamations, and left-wing credentials provide him exemptions from Pavlovian anti-war hysteria, especially abroad. And as far as conservatives go, if they supported Bush’s invading Iraq and stayed with him for seven years to foster constitutional government, surely they should rally behind Obama’s far more limited warmaking, even if Obama — in the fashion of Bill Clinton, but unlike both the elder and the younger Bush — never went to the House and Senate to get authorization for military action.
Finally, Obama’s belated intervention comes in a context of once wanting out of Iraq by March 2008 and then accepting the Bush-Petraeus withdrawal plan; of promising to close Guantanamo within a year and then keeping it open; of pledging to end tribunals, renditions, and preventive detention and then extending or expanding them all; of surging in Afghanistan while setting arbitrary withdrawal dates — and all this amid a $1.6 trillion projected budget deficit and sizable American presences still in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At some point the prestige of the United States and the success of the Libyan rebels — no matter however cleverly the operations are cloaked in European and Arab multilateralism — rest with the removal of Moammar Qaddafi. But in this sorta/sorta not war, the trick will hinge on Nobel laureate Barack Obama’s ability to eliminate Qaddafi either by “accident” or by outsourcing the job to others — while insisting that we only wish to stop the bombing of innocents.
Let us pray that the president has this all finished by the time of the Final Four.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.