The Obama administration has come under fire for its slowness in responding to the Libyan crisis, its apparent unenthusiastic stance once it did get involved, and its desire to hand off the mission to Europeans as quickly as possible. The administration has also been criticized for failing to involve Congress in the decision-making leading up to the military operation and for its apparent failure to develop a clear road map for what to do next.
Most of these criticisms have a kernel of truth — indeed, although the mission has been effective in averting a humanitarian debacle so far, it has been ugly in some ways. But as Ivo Daalder, now the U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and I argued about the Kosovo war a dozen years ago in our book, Winning Ugly: NATO’s War to Save Kosovo, an ugly operation is not the same as a failed operation. In fact, even a mission that starts off badly can turn around if policymakers start to give thought to the full range of outcomes that will be acceptable and what it will cost to achieve them. It is far too early to say for certain that Operation Odyssey Dawn will turn out as well as the 1999 war designed to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s violence against ethnic Albanians in what was then the Serbian province of Kosovo. Much can still go wrong, as it did in Kosovo. But on balance, this operation is off to a far better start than that one.
In the run-up to the Kosovo war, there was less disagreement among NATO members about getting involved, although Greece was more opposed to war then than Turkey is today. Still, given Russia’s opposition to using any force against its long-standing ally in Kosovo, NATO had to launch its operation without a UN Security Council resolution, which only complicated the mission at the end, when Russia unsuccessfully tried to compete with NATO for control over northern Kosovo in the postwar peacekeeping mission. And the war got off to a terrible start: rather than protecting ethnic Albanians, the initial campaign instead prompted Milosovic to intensify his pogrom against them, as he realized that the alliance had not planned a militarily effective operation. Indeed, NATO’s leaders had predicted that a few days of pinprick attacks would be enough to stop the Serbian thug, and they had failed to plan for any possible escalation if they were not. Tellingly, the United States had even redeployed its only aircraft carrier stationed in the Mediterranean just a few days before initiating hostilities; keeping to the Navy’s schedule for ship rotations apparently mattered more than keeping ready combat power in the region.
This time, the United States has been more careful. Both here and in Europe, military leaders have not promised that the mission would be a military cakewalk. In the U.S. debate, Daalder, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have all warned about the limited effectiveness of no-fly zones. Some have interpreted their statements as hedges against the possible failure of a military mission that they did not want to conduct, but the remarks should in fact be read as a combination of prudence and public education. Their statements have certainly been vindicated. The imposition of the no-fly zone has been a violent affair that has produced no quick victory despite already having gone well beyond standard procedure to include destroying much of the Libyan air force and attacking ground combat vehicles. It has so far provisionally achieved its core goal of protecting the rebels and civilians in pro-rebel areas. And although Libya’s Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi has certainly not backed down, he has not escalated his onslaught, as Milosevic did, nor has he even repeated his threats to show “no mercy” to insurgents. In both Kosovo and Libya, the United States has walked a strategic middle path between decisive force and passivity.
In both cases, the U.S. president ruled out any use of ground troops early on. That decision was likely ill-advised in Kosovo, especially when combined with the United States’ other signs of irresoluteness in the war’s early days, but it is probably correct in Libya, since airpower will be more potent in the country’s open terrain (and is already being used to greater effect). But even though they were reluctant to commit troops, both U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama felt the need to do something — Clinton because he regretted standing by early on as the conflict in Bosnia started and during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Obama largely because he is advised by several of the same people who experienced the Bosnia and Rwanda debacles firsthand.
Yet the impulse to do something, as Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, famously warned in the early 1990s, can be dangerous. Allied help, a balanced approach, and noble intentions do not necessarily add up to guaranteed victory. The Kosovo war would have been a debacle had it ended after the first month, as Milosevic drove hundreds of thousands from their homes. This scenario looked entirely possible until NATO dramatically intensified its operations and started to hint at a possible ground invasion. And the Libyan engagement, although effective so far in stemming Qaddafi’s onslaught, could still produce a stalemate that leaves him temporarily in power in Tripoli and its environs. Perhaps a worse outcome would be if the United States helped the rebels just enough to keep them fighting but not enough to resolve the conflict. Libya might become a bleeding ulcer that al Qaeda could try to exploit. In war, it is not enough merely to make a good effort; a good outcome is also a necessity.