On Libya

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 18, 2011

Micah Zenko worries me:

First, yesterday’s U.N. Security Council Resolution allows for the use of “all necessary means” to protect civilians, which is great except that nobody who knows anything about military operations — and no one who I have talked to in the military — believes that the no-fly zone will achieve that. If you look at the tactics being used by the Muammar al-Qaddafi regime, it’s ground forces that are executing the regime’s oppression. Where we have seen bombings, it is primarily of rebel arms depots or barracks.

A second objective being advanced by intervention proponents — but not supported in the resolution — is the need to tilt the balance of power away from Qaddafi. The no fly zone stands little chance of achieving this either; it’s a more than 600-mile trip from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to Tripoli, and even if the rebels had air support on their journey, Qaddafi’s forces could clean their clocks as they advanced. To really tip the balance, you’d probably need sustained close air support and arms. Yet paragraph nine of the earlier resolution (1970) expressly forbids arming the rebel forces. So if we really want to tip the balance of power and arm the rebels, as the Egyptians seem to be doing, we need to recognize that we will be in violation of a U.N. Security Council Resolution. And again, there’s no guarantee it would work.

The final objective is the maximalist one: regime change. Nearly every Western leader has said it: Qaddafi must go; he’s not fit to lead. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even called him a “creature.” But if you want to achieve regime, you need to have broader debate, and frankly, you would probably need foreign military boots on the ground. Yet everyone who supports this maximalist objective has approved only minimalist tactics.

In short, while we believe we are ready to “do something” in Libya, we are having a debate over what tactics we find acceptable, rather than what strategy will succeed.

This actually plays into Qaddafi’s hands. Now he knows that the air option is out. But he also knows that Western powers will be unwilling to send in troops — the only thing that would assure he is removed from power. The message he’ll take away is to go hard on the ground war.

Tom Ricks–who, mind you, thinks that the Obama Administration has done the right thing by threatening the use of force–worries me:

Now, the sooner this no-fly zone gets up and running, the better. I think it would be good if Arab aircraft and pilots did most of the actually bombing and shooting. We can give them refueling and AWACs aircraft doing command and control. I know, a lot easier said than done. Running a no-fly zone is difficult and complex, especially when the enforcers are a coalition thrown together on the fly.

In particular, combat search and rescue of downed pilots could be tough to organize. I think best bet might be helicopters operating off carriers and/or amphibious ships. But if you are rescuing Arab air crews that might get complicated, so the best option might be having double helicopter teams — that is, a Navy or Marine helicopter, and one from the nation of the downed flier. Again, much easier said than done.

I also think the rules of engagement could get tricky. Presumably the no-fly rules will include helicopters, which are hard to catch.

Finally, what do we do when Qaddafi puts anti-aircraft batteries in mosques, orphanages and chemical weapons depots?

Good question. We don’t have any answers, unfortunately.

God knows I have oodles of disagreements with my former professor, Stephen Walt, but the following deserves to be taken seriously (it’s not written about Israel, after all):

. . . the best hope here is that the onset of airstrikes quickly demoralizes the loyalist forces, tips the balance of resolve back toward the rebels, and maybe even convinces Qaddafi to blow town. This might happen, of course, but there are some reasons to be skeptical. Back in 1999, Madeleine Albright thought a few days of airstrikes would convince Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate in the Kosovo War, but the war actually dragged on weeks and he surrendered only after his Russian patrons withdrew their support and convinced him to cut a deal. The problem is that Qaddafi doesn’t have a lot of attractive options besides fighting on, which is precisely why he’s chosen to act as he has.

Furthermore, using airpower against Qaddafi’s army isn’t a simple matter, particularly if they taken some elementary precautions, like dispersing or camouflaging equipment. We can bomb airfields and ground air assets, and probably do a number on his command-and-control system, but it’s not clear how much that would affect his ability to conduct ground operations against the lightly armed and poorly trained rebel forces. The U.S. Air Force had a lot of trouble finding and destroying Serb military targets during the Kosovo war, and most of the damage it did came from attacks on fixed targets like bridges and power grids.

Let’s also remember that we are going to miss some targets and inflict some collateral damage too (remember that Chinese embassy in Belgrade?). As far as I know, we don’t have spotters on the ground to do laser target designation, and sending special forces to perform that task has obvious risks of its own. If Qaddafi’s forces move into populated areas than even precision guided weapons could kill a lot of innocent bystanders. In fact, going after his ground forces is likely to require attack helicopters and other short-range aircraft (not strategic bombers), and that means using carrier aviation. Which in turn means Uncle Sam. My point is that this situation doesn’t seem well-suited to the kind of devastating air assault that we conducted with heavy bombers against the Iraqi army at the start of Desert Storm, or even the adroit and successful air and special forces campaign that ousted the Taliban in 2001-2002.

Kori Schake worries me:

Last night’s U.N. Security Council resolution passed with no visible effort by the Obama administration. Britain, France and Lebanon drafted it and twisted arms to get it passed. Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy made the public case; their foreign ministers harangued the G-8 foreign ministers. Although Secretary Clinton herself spoke out in favor of multilateral action, when pressed by her G-8 colleagues to support the no fly zone, she was unwilling to take a position. When pressed by the President of France, she said “there are difficulties.”

Meanwhile, President Obama leaves for spring break in Brazil without having consulted members of Congress or making a case to the American people that Libya’s freedom is worth sacrifice by us. Our Commander in Chief cannot be intending to commit American military forces to intervene in Libya without being much more at the helm than this.

Peter Feaver worries me:

The Obama administration’s decision to support a tough UNSCR on Libya at the very last minute has left me flummoxed. For weeks the administration has been talking down the various military options that now seem imminent.

The administration claimed that it was illegal to arm the Libyan rebels, but it now appears that they quietly encouraged Egypt to commit this allegedly illegal act. The administration talked down a no-fly zone back when the rebels were strong and the moral and material support of a no-fly zone might have been decisive. Now they have joined in authorizing a much tougher no-drive zone that could involve substantially more air-strikes and associated collateral damage.

Throughout, the president has let others in the administration do the talking on Libya, and most of their talking has been negative. It has been widely reported that two of his principal national security advisors, NSA Donilon and Defense Secretary Gates, have strongly opposed military action. The administration as a whole has let others make the case for military action. And the administration has done little (the president, even less) to mobilize the public and Congress to support U.S. intervention.

Feaver sees a possibility that the Obama Administration is being clever, and letting the rest of the world shoulder the burden of removing Qaddafi, but of course, hope is not a plan.

Marc Lynch worries me:

The intervention is a high-stakes gamble. If it succeeds quickly, and Qaddafi’s regime crumbles as key figures jump ship in the face of its certain demise, then it could reverse the flagging fortunes of the Arab uprisings. Like the first Security Council resolution on Libya, it could send a powerful message that the use of brutal repression makes regime survival less rather than more likely. It would put real meat on the bones of the “Responsibility to Protect” and help create a new international norm. And it could align the U.S. and the international community with al-Jazeera and the aspirations of the Arab protest movement. I have heard from many protest leaders from other Arab countries that success in Libya would galvanize their efforts, and failure might crush their hopes.

But if it does not succeed quickly, and the intervention degenerates into a long quagmire of air strikes, grinding street battles, and growing pressure for the introduction of outside ground forces, then the impact could be quite different. Despite the bracing scenes of Benghazi erupting into cheers at the news of the Resolution, Arab support for the intervention is not nearly as deep as it seems and will not likely survive an extended war. If Libyan civilians are killed in airstrikes, and especially if foreign troops enter Libyan territory, and images of Arabs killed by U.S. forces replace images of brave protestors battered by Qaddafi’s forces on al-Jazeera, the narrative could change quickly into an Iraq-like rage against Western imperialism. What began as an indigenous peaceful Arab uprising against authoritarian rule could collapse into a spectacle of war and intervention.

The Libya intervention is also complicated by the trends in the rest of the region. There is currently a bloody crackdown going on in U.S.-backed Bahrain, with the support of Saudi Arabia and the GCC. The Yemeni regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh is currently carrying out some of its bloodiest repression yet. Will the Responsibility to Protect extend to Bahrain and Yemen? This is not a tangential point. One of the strongest reasons to intervene in Libya is the argument that the course of events there will influence the decisions of other despots about the use of force. If they realize that the international community will not allow the brutalization of their own people, and a robust new norm created, then intervention in Libya will pay off far beyond its borders. But will ignoring Bahrain and Yemen strangle that new norm in its crib?

Again, we have no answers to these questions. I certainly hope that all of this worrying is for naught, and if things turn out well, and the Libyan model the Obama Administration is trying out appears to be one that is replicable in a host of other situations, I shall be the first to tip my hat to the Administration for a job well done. But as the forgoing shows, there are a whole host of concerns surrounding this intervention, and the effort to address those concerns has been disappointing (to say the least). Again, for those wondering what a “headlong rush into war” looks like, this is it.

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