Limited American Role Encourages Gaddafi

President Barack Obama’s pre-war comments about the Libyan crisis convinced Muammar al-Gaddafi that he can survive.  

Obama’s March 18 White House remarks came fewer than 24 hours after the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize military action—including a no-fly zone over Libya—to prevent the killing of civilians by Gaddafi’s forces. 

Then on Saturday, coalition forces launched Operation Odyssey Dawn by raining more than 110 mostly American Tomahawk missiles on Libya’s critical nodes.  That opening salvo followed Gaddafi’s declaration of a unilateral cease-fire that proved to be a tactical feign.  The dictator called for a cease-fire to buy time to reposition his forces for the assault on Benghazi, the rebel-held eastern city.  

But Gaddafi’s announcement was also meant to confuse the war-weary British and French publics that are skeptical about their governments’ campaign for U.N.-authorized military action against Libya . 

Although the war is in its early stages, it is clear Gaddafi may be out-gunned but not necessarily outwitted.   He quickly turned on the propaganda machine to rally support against the “crusaders” and to claim innocent civilians were killed by coalition bombs.  But more important than the psychological war now raging, Gaddafi is banking his survival on four limitations outlined in Obama’s pre-war remarks.

First, Obama has limited interest in the crisis.  He acknowledged that if left “unchecked,” Gaddafi will “commit atrocities against his people.  Many thousands could die.”  So he “checked” the regime’s actions by starting another war, which, like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, could easily morph into a long-term insurgency.

But America’s interests, claimed Obama, are keeping the region stable, which he admits “will not and cannot be imposed by the United States.”  He rightly places that responsibility on the Arab world, which at this point appears unwilling to pay the price of meaningful intervention. 

Besides putting the onus on the Arabs, Obama also distanced himself from what former Secretary of State and Gen. Colin Powell said before our Iraq invasion:  “You break it, you own it.”  He wiggled out of that obligation on Friday when he said, “More nations [not just America ] bear the responsibility and the cost of enforcing international law.”  Translation:  The U.S. will have a limited role.

The commander-in-chief punctuated America’s limited role by leaving Washington just before the attack.  Further, he diminished the importance of that attack by traveling to Brazil, one of five nations that failed to endorse the U.N. military action against Libya.  That’s a slap in the face of every armed services member now fighting Libya .

Also, Obama puts fighting this war somewhere in importance below the health care debate.  Last year, Obama cancelled an overseas trip to focus on the health care debate.  Obviously, the commander-in-chief doesn’t believe starting another Mideast war rises to the same level of importance.

Second, America’s military role will be very limited.  The U.S. “is prepared to act as part of an international coalition,” Obama said.  Then he said, “We are coordinating closely with them [the coalition] and our role is primarily to help shape the conditions for the international community to act together.” 

Shaping means the U.S. will play a behind-the-scenes role.  For example, Obama said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would help “coordinate planning.”  On March 10, Gates met his counterparts at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, to begin planning the operation, which includes the always-complicated rules of engagement to limit harm to civilians.  

Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with European and Arab partners to discuss enforcement of the U.N. resolution, which is a way of saying the details regarding which nations will do what are still in the works.  Once the negotiations with the foreign ministers are completed, their military forces will mass for the air campaign against Libya in earnest.

America’s shaping role, according to Obama, also includes the provision of “the unique capabilities that we can bring to bear … enabling our … partners to effectively enforce a no-fly zone.”  That means providing our allies targeting information from our sophisticated platforms, air refueling for partner fighters, conducting sea-launched missile attacks, and participating in enforcement of the arms embargo. 

But any way you slice it, America just declared war on Libya and was the first to launch an actual attack.  What is the strategy that limits America’s role?

Third, the no-fly zone will have limited impact.  The threat is no longer from Gaddafi’s 374 aircraft but from those ground forces closing in on Benghazi.  That’s why Gaddafi declared a unilateral cease-fire in response to the U.N.’s use of force.  He needed time to consolidate gains ahead of coalition air strikes. 

We saw a similar situation in the 1990s in Bosnia and Croatia.  While NATO dithered with a no-fly zone, the former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic allegedly massacred tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, including the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica. 

What the coalition must now do is declare a no-drive zone between Ajdabiya and Benghazi, the military’s main supply route.  But the challenge for the coalition is sorting out military from civilian traffic.  That’s where ground forces would be especially helpful and the political damage is potentially greatest for the coalition.

Fourth, Obama limited America’s role by putting ground troops off the table.  He said “We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal—specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya [via a no-fly zone].”  But without ground operations it is highly unlikely Gaddafi can be stopped and just as unlikely the dictator will ever be held “accountable,” which Obama promised. 

Yes, the European-led coalition has ground troops, but not enough to conquer Libya, which is a giant country—larger than Alaska, with 1,100 miles of coastline and a population of 6.5 million living mostly near that coast.  Our allies have insufficient forces to sustain widespread operations unless limited to Benghazi—the rebel-held city of 700,000.  Of course, Obama has already said no to American ground troops.

Alternatively, allied special operations forces such as the British Special Air Service will play the primary ground role.  They will advise and equip the rebels, call in fighter strikes on Libyan forces, and target Libyan leaders.  Capturing or killing Gaddafi and his key military subordinates could be a mission subject to international law and rules of engagement.

The multi-phased operation is gaining clarity.  What is unclear is just how far the European-led coalition is willing to go and whether Gaddafi can consolidate his gains in Benghazi before the coalition becomes fully operational—the Schwerpunkt of this operation. 

Gaddafi understands the implications of a limited American role.  He knows the coalition will severely damage his arsenal and impose a no-fly zone, but without a sizable invasion and occupation, which is doubtful at this point, the regime will survive and thanks primarily to President Obama.