As the western intervention in Libya approaches its fourth month, there are a few signs of progress: some air strikes against the Gadhafi regime, a slow movement of rebel forces throughout the countryside and the encirclement of Tripoli. But there’s also no end game. It’s past time we start to ask why.
The recent act of theater in Congress over whether the Libyan campaign should be constrained by the War Powers Act showed just how sloppy American thinking about the war has become. The problem with the war in Libya is not that President Obama is declining to describe the hostilities as, well, hostilities. It’s that President Obama has been unable to articulate his strategy for ending the war — and just as importantly, defining his vision for a post-war Libya.
It was a real shame to see the disappointment in Congress at how long the Libyan war has lasted. Much of the objection to it back in March hinged on these concerns: it would not be cheap (the war has cost hundreds of millions of dollars to date and is increasing daily); it would not be quick (remember when President Obama promised three months ago the war would last “days, not weeks”?); and it would not be easy (like the recent accidental bombing of rebel militants).
Indeed, when you step back and think about it, the lack of planning for the war in Libya is astonishing. Despite the stress of the Afghanistan war, NATO chose to take on a humanitarian intervention it really cannot afford. Some pro-war pundits even went so far as to declare the war essential to NATO’s survival. First, Afghanistan was necessary for NATO’s survival, now it’s Libya. But always, the thinking seems to go, war must exist for NATO to justify its existence. Why bother planning for the aftermath if war itself is the purpose of intervention?
Because the war isn’t really in anyone’s national interests, no one has devoted the resources necessary to bring it to a swift conclusion. As the war’s justification has shifted (Remember back in March, when President Obama said he wasn’t going to seek regime change because of our experiences in Iraq?), so too have the requirements of the intervention. A no-fly zone is fairly easy to enforce with some carriers and airplanes; enforcing a change of government is not. It requires “boots on the ground” and a substantial civilian presence afterward to prevent the post-Gadhafi Libya from falling into chaos.
The strategic incoherence of the war in Libya has dire consequences. On the one hand, we seem to think that if we bomb the country enough Gadhafi will give up and leave. Yet, we also want to convict Gadhafi in the International Criminal Court, which creates a reason for him to hunker down and not leave. And meanwhile not a single NATO country, including the United States, has decisively targeted his regime or sent in the necessary force to put a quick end to the fighting. As a result, the war has dragged on months longer than any sustained Kosovo-style campaign would have — killing thousands of Libyans in the process, as combat on the ground grinds on and on.
There are a few very basic questions about the war that its supporters have not answered, despite three-plus months of directionless fighting. The first and most important one: How does this end? Does it end with Gadhafi out of power, with the assumption that the rebels will be left to rule without any further input from the west? Does it end with Libya’s first election in decades? Does it end with a long-term presence of thousands of expatriate aid and development workers mentoring the rebel High Council on proper government and constitutional drafting while a NATO-led security force trains their militias so they can become an army that can defend itself? Of course, none of these scenarios really constitute as “an end,” but is that what we’re really working toward? Supporters of the war in Libya do not say.
Another critical question to be answered is what happens to Gadhafi. He’s rightly hated by most Libyans and most other Arabs as a vicious thug who ran his country into the ground and a criminal instigator of insurgencies and other uprisings throughout the region. No one likes him. So what happens to him? Is he killed summarily in a drone or air strike? Is he persuaded to step down and offered luxurious exile in Europe? Is he to be captured and put on trial for his crimes? If so, what about rebel factions that have also committed atrocities?
It’s very easy to demand a Western intervention when bad things happen. But coming up with a coherent strategy both for the war (and its aftermath) is much more difficult. What should worry us now about the war isn’t that it is happening — it is, and nothing can change that now — but what will happen next. And the utter lack of planning for what comes next from the pro-war advocates, aside from demanding we flood the country with yet more weaponry, is terrifying.
We have no idea what we’re doing. Rather than playing games in Congress about the constitutionality or relevance of a law he’s choosing to ignore, President Obama needs to come clean about his desired outcome in Libya. And just as importantly, he needs to tell the public what we’re going to get after we’re done spending a billion dollars on the downfall of Gadhafi.