The public debate over what to do about Libya includes many sound ideas.
No fly zones using aircraft carriers and perhaps Italian bases could complicate — though probably not prevent — Muammar Qadhafi from using attack aircraft against his own people. No drive zones, using similar assets plus JSTARS reconnaissance aircraft, could intercept the African fighters and other groups heading to Tripoli to shore up Qadhafi’s regime against its internal foes.
Threats to indict Qadhafi as a war criminal, or seize his assets abroad, or prevent him from traveling are also being discussed. Though if he sees his only alternative is being driven from power, he is unlikely to be deterred.
The military options are reasonable — in theory. They have the potential of relatively high payoff for low cost to the United States, and minimal risk of U.S. casualties if they go off as planned.
But we should be uneasy — especially about doing on our own, without the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, without Muslim partners.
One thing that both Iraq and Afghanistan have again demonstrated is the potential for war not to go as planned — even when we think all major factors line up in our favor. This is an enduring lesson of Carl von Clausewitz, the great Prussian military theorist, who observed that the fog of war and the excitable emotions of man can increase the stakes — and complicate the course — of any battles we begin.
One must always think about “Plan B” when starting an operation, in case things don’t go as intended. It is crucial to analyze the likely steps that could result from any escalation in the fighting.
With Libya, there is a considerable possibility that if we were to impose no fly zones and no drive zones, Qadhafi would not only threaten any Americans still in Libya, but he would intensify — rather than scale back — the pace of killing of his own citizens.
Fearing for his own life; sensing that he needed to cast doubt on the effectiveness of any foreign intervention, so that outside countries might back down, and aware that time was against him, Qadhafi might bludgeon the opposition more harshly rather than compromise or abdicate power.
The fact that his calculations are probably wrong on all these points does not change the fact that, like countless leaders before him, he would choose to escalate once in greater trouble — perhaps unleashing an all-out civil war, threatening the lives of tens of thousands.
So we would have had to consider the possibility of needing to put forces on the streets of Tripoli to defeat parts of the Libyan army; the African mercenaries and thugs whom Qadhafi cultivated over the years; any prisoners that Qaddafi might release (as Saddam Hussein did before the 2003 invasion), and other extremists.
To think that we could intervene a little, then stand aside as our actions made the situation worse, ignores the lessons of the Kosovo war and numerous other conflicts. Our job could then quickly become a small-scale version — in this country of 6 million — of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or perhaps a better analogy is Somalia, circa 1992-1993.
At the time of the 1994 Rwanda genocide – again, a comparatively small country — some argued that a single combat brigade of NATO troops could have stopped the killing. I disagree. While we should have intervened, it would have taken closer to 20,000 troops, or more, to do the job right. There could well be a similar requirement here.
Moreover, though our military is far superior to the opposition we might meet, experiences from Grenada to Panama to Somalia suggest we could lose one of our soldiers or Marines for every 10 enemy fighters we had to take down. If Qadhafi loyalists numbered in the thousands, it is not out of the question that we could lose hundreds of U.S. troops before the violence subsided. The “nation-building” fallout could continue for years.
These are all hypotheticals — and probably would not play out as noted above. But a key lesson of military planning is that one must anticipate, if not the theoretical worst case, at least the plausible worst case. And be ready for it.
Another key lesson of the recent past is that good intentions do not win us international plaudits. They cannot defuse the arguments of Al Qaeda and others that we are somehow latter-day imperialists, or prevent an insurgency from developing in a country where we intervene. The Bush years taught us that.
Some say President Barack Obama is immune to such dynamics. But after two years of his presidency, U.S. popularity in the broader Arab world is not particularly good anymore — as polling by Shibley Telhami and others reveals. President George W. Bush himself was hugely popular in 2002, before the invasion of Iraq.
As such, we need two main types of international support before beginning even a limited use of force. First, NATO allies, who are directly implicated in the troubles in Libya by reasons of geography, should be part of the aerial operations. Second, so should at least some nations from the broader Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Even if the matter is too sensitive for Arab neighbors, we need active participation — not just bases, not just logistics support — from states like Turkey, Indonesia and the nations of the Indian subcontinent. Preferably, they should be flying planes with us from the outset.
Yes, there is a risk that the delay resulting from an effort to create such a coalition, preferably operating under U.N. mandate, would allow the killing to continue a few more days before we could act. But recent history suggests that the risks to U.S. interests are even greater if we proceed too quickly alone.