Politics & Policy

The Libyan Boomerang

Obama is unintentionally creating the most favorable conditions for the worst-case scenario.

The worst thing that could foreseeably happen in Libya is for the situation to degenerate into an indefinite insurgent conflict in a failed state. Just a few weeks ago, that possibility did not realistically exist. It was created by our intervention, which managed somehow to combine the qualities of being too late, too hasty, and of the wrong kind.

The beginnings of Libya’s slide into a chaotic insurgency are plain to see in the tactics Qaddafi’s forces have adopted: They now dress like the rebels and drive around in “technicals” (armed pickup trucks) rather than tanks. In a classic example of asymmetric strategy, Qaddafi has stopped presenting the West with its preferred targets: warplanes, military vehicles, and identifiable installations. His forces are melting into the urban landscape, and it will not take them long to start appearing well behind rebel lines.

Obama’s strategy of diplomacy backed by air power is stripping the Qaddafi regime of the attributes of a functioning state. But those policies pose little threat to the regime’s tribalistic and terroristic core.

That core has now become Qaddafi’s only hope for survival. As we have learned elsewhere, absent an effective occupation, he could subsist in that core indefinitely, deep within a web of insurgent forces and terrorist networks that he controls or influences to varying degrees — and which protect him. Beyond that, the situation in Libya is sui generis. We are deep into the realm of unknown unknowns.

Obama has promised that there will be “no boots on the ground.” Regardless of his relaxed approach to keeping the promises he makes, Obama’s multilateral answer to the current crisis and his exquisite sensitivity to Arab grievances virtually guarantee that there will be no invasion by Western combat troops anytime soon. We have started a war of choice, and we are denying ourselves the means to win it.

Credible reports indicate that Obama has authorized the insertion of CIA and other U.S. operatives into Libya, in an apparent attempt to help organize the resistance into some sort of effective fighting force.

According to Ahmed Sanalla, a medical student turned rebel in Benghazi, the front-line rebel forces are several thousand strong. About a quarter of them are former military, most of whom defected with their units under Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes, the former interior minister. Most of the rest are simply members of the pro-democracy movement, which has been armed from army stocks since the fighting started. The military component of the rebellion is trying to organize the larger mass into units, but they face daunting challenges. 

In Iraq, where cost was no object and we had more than 100,000 troops on the ground — and where an effective local force was desperately needed — a similar task took years. Granted, in Libya we have the benefit of scale: Qaddafi’s forces have been reduced to perhaps just a few tens of thousands. That means that if we could train and organize just a single brigade-size formation of rebel forces (say, several thousand effectives), we could — assuming plenty of U.S. and allied special forces on the ground, and the continued application of air power — conceivably defeat Qaddafi.

But regardless of scale, just training and organizing a force that large takes time; it cannot be compressed into a period of weeks. And besides, all of that basic training, equipping, and organizing has to occur away from the battlefield, whereas the rebels right now cannot afford to lose a single man.

If Obama intends to train and organize the rebels into a force he can use for diplomatic leverage, the obvious precedent is Nicaragua. But in Nicaragua, we were arming an insurgency against a more or less established dictatorship that we could negotiate with. And in Nicaragua, the rebels could hide in impenetrable forests. Here we are arming one of the sides in a desert civil war that is quickly degenerating into God knows what.

The stated war aim is to force Qaddafi to stop attacking civilians. But that would not be an end state. Unless a truce is negotiated and enforced (which would almost certainly require an international peace-keeping force), a “stabilization” of the “front” would create a highly explosive state of affairs. Qaddafi will be on war footing until he wins, and the same is true of the rebels. At some point, some central authority will have to assert itself in Libya and establish control of the whole territory. Almost by definition, the conflict will last until then.

The rosiest possible scenario is for Qaddafi to step down as a result of the diplomatic inducements and sanctions that Obama’s national-security team has shown so much faith in. Obama’s advisers hope that high-level defections and military desertions will reach a point where Qaddafi realizes that his rule is untenable and he must step down. But this scenario totally mistakes the character and capabilities of Qaddafi. He lives for war — and he is vastly well-armed.

With several organized paramilitary forces (including thousands of foot soldiers from sub-Saharan Africa), in addition to at least two well-trained and -equipped Libyan Army brigades — all under his direct personal control — Qaddafi is well placed to make the transition to a powerful insurgency. There is perhaps a 5 percent chance that the hoped-for outcome is achievable within a year.

The Obama administration’s immediate objective may be to achieve a de facto stalemate on the ground. But such a stalemate would be highly volatile — and dangerous for everybody. Qaddafi would resort to terrorist and insurgent tactics, against which a “no boots on the ground” strategy will be totally ineffective, and which could claim thousands of lives. The remains of his military and intelligence assets could evolve into a powerful terrorist network of global reach. And one thing we know for sure is that we’ve earned ourselves a bitter enemy. As soon as he feels safe, Qaddafi will turn on his Western tormentors.

If we were going to intervene in Libya at all, it should have been on the basis of a strategy designed to achieve a favorable outcome from the point of view of both humanitarianism and vital U.S. interests. Instead, our strategy seems risky for both.

A logical strategy for intervention in Libya — assuming you really wanted one at all — would almost certainly have entailed boots on the ground. But nobody wants an occupation. No wonder Obama is trying to transfer control of the operation to NATO. He is searching desperately for some way to shift onto somebody else responsibility for the consequences of what he started and facilitated for no other reason than that everyone seemed to want it.

Obama’s national-security policy is not based on strategy, properly so called. It is based on the rote application of political talking points and academic theories to immediate crises, with little consideration of long-term consequences, or of how those crises are interrelated. As is only natural given his background, he lacks an overarching strategic vision of foreign affairs, such as what Kissinger and Baker were able to impart on behalf of their presidents. So in practice, the process of policy formulation defaults to the least common denominator of the consensus you can achieve within the national-security establishment.

After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the national-security establishment has become overwhelmingly risk-averse. But if we only attack what we’re not afraid of, at the end of the day we’ll be facing what we’re most afraid of. Obama is unintentionally creating the most favorable conditions for the worst-case scenario. In the heart of North Africa, a motorboat’s ride from the undefended coast of southern Europe, we are systematically creating a terrorist insurgency that we may not be able to defeat except through some kind of occupation.

It would be an occupation that nobody wants and one that, just a month ago, would have been impossible to justify on the basis of any vital interest of the United States.

Mario Loyola is a frequent contributor to National Review.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


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