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Shooting first, answering questions later

March 29, 2011

Well, we have all been  waiting on the Commander-in-Chief to offer a comprehensive explanation of his latest venture in Libya. Despite my usual preoccupation with grand strategy, I was not expecting, as some commentators apparently were, to see an “Obama Doctrine” or some grand strategy, where Obama reveals that Libya was, all along, part of some cunning grand strategy. We know what Obama’s grand strategy is, it’s in the NSS. What I was hoping to see was a logic of intervention by which we could make sound determinations about our strategy for the intervention itself. That’s not what we got. The speech is available here in full, but I will be quoting liberally:

At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice. Gaddafi declared that he would show “no mercy” to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now, we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973. We struck regime forces approaching Benghazi to save that city and the people within it. We hit Gaddafi’s troops in neighboring Ajdabiya, allowing the opposition to drive them out. We hit his air defenses, which paved the way for a No Fly Zone. We targeted tanks and military assets that had been choking off towns and cities and we cut off much of their source of supply. And tonight, I can report that we have stopped Gaddafi’s deadly advance.

The implication here is that Gaddafi could have carried out a full-scale massacre of his citizens in Benghazi, which is questionable, and I have tried to treat the assumptions about that in earlier posts. But obviously, there is nothing here compelling to explain why this is a reason to intervene. So far, we have humanitarian values, which is of course not enough to merit intervention on its own. So Obama adds the criteria of a “national interest,” which he does not yet explain. He also adds another criteria – ability and capacity:

Our most effective alliance, NATO, has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and No Fly Zone. Last night, NATO decided to take on the additional responsibility of protecting Libyan civilians. This transfer from the United States to NATO will take place on Wednesday. Going forward, the lead in enforcing the No Fly Zone and protecting civilians on the ground will transition to our allies and partners, and I am fully confident that our coalition will keep the pressure on Gaddafi’s remaining forces. In that effort, the United States will play a supporting role – including intelligence, logistical support, search and rescue assistance, and capabilities to jam regime communications. Because of this transition to a broader, NATO-based coalition, the risk and cost of this operation – to our military, and to American taxpayers – will be reduced significantly.

So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: the United States of America has done what we said we would do.

Obama here is being extremely disingenuous. America is not simply leaving the war. Indeed, America expanded its participation in the conflict by deploying ground attack aircraft such as A-10 and AC-130 aircraft, which have very little value in intelligence gathering or logistical support, but extremely high value in destroying enemy vehicles and killing enemy soldiers. Obama talks about scaling down our involvement in combat operations, but how can we be sure that these parts of our unique capabilities might not be called to intervene in Libya again?

If we really do have a moral obligation and an ambiguously defined national interest in even preventing Gaddafi from gaining ground in Libya, then why would the US not need to return to ground attack operations, or re-escalate its role in Libya? What is the endgame for Libya? Obama solves this problem by basically asserting mission accomplished, if not in those words:

Tomorrow, Secretary Clinton will go to London, where she will meet with the Libyan opposition and consult with more than thirty nations. These discussions will focus on what kind of political effort is necessary to pressure Gaddafi, while also supporting a transition to the future that the Libyan people deserve. Because while our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives, we continue to pursue the broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to its people.

Despite the success of our efforts over the past week, I know that some Americans continue to have questions about our efforts in Libya. Gaddafi has not yet stepped down from power, and until he does, Libya will remain dangerous. Moreover, even after Gaddafi does leave power, forty years of tyranny has left Libya fractured and without strong civil institutions. The transition to a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people will be a difficult task. And while the United States will do our part to help, it will be a task for the international community, and – more importantly – a task for the Libyan people themselves.

So basically, the war is all over, except for the fighting. Contrary to the Obama administration’s claim that the US was only interested in protecting civilians, Western action has treated any attacks on Gaddafi’s military forces as legitimate humanitarian targets. To claim that US actions are only the minimum necessary to protect civilians is completely misleading. If that was all the US cared for, it would be seeking to impose a cease-fire, and willing to leave some degree of Libyan military forces intact, or it might reserve its attacks to only military elements directly involved in harming civilians. It might seek to create safe zones and exclude Libyan forces only from there. Instead, any Libyan military formation is fair game. If your goal is to destroy the enemy military in the field and prevent them from capturing territory, you are not fighting a limited humanitarian action. When you declare any areas an armed force takes from another armed force a safe zone, you are not fighting a limited humanitarian action. You are intervening in a civil war with the intent of producing a military victory.

Yet Obama’s speech assumes that since US military intervention is supposedly ending, then all that remains is for Gaddafi to realize he has lost. If Gaddafi is so violent and deranged that we cannot pursue a cease-fire or accept anything but regime change, then why would we assume the West can bribe him out of position before the ground war against him – one we are explicitly not participating in – is actually won? As Pentagon officials have reiterated, the Libyan opposition is a disorganized fighting force, and we must not assume it can hold all of its gains. Reports of their having taken Surt earlier in the day erred in their assessments, the fight there is ongoing, as is the siege of Misrata. After all, Gaddafi was able to repulse the rebels before when they held even more territory, and he could do it again. That means the war is not over, and we cannot assume civilian methods of regime change will pan out.

This is basically Obama’s excuse for not having a strategic endgame in Libya. There is no indication about when US forces might come back into play, or at what point the US should simply cut its losses and undertake triage to protect the most civilians possible and limit damage to the region. The administration simply assumes major combat operations are over! Essentially, it is thinking very hard about what tough choices it will face if its preferred outcome is already at hand, in denial to the fact that Libya’s civil war is far from over.

So why did the US intervene in Libya in the first place? Obama’s justifications for why Libyan action was not automatically a bad cause seem to paper over the yawning gap where alternatives and contingencies for a strategic endgame should be.

In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

Obama’s rhetoric here is muddled and contradictory. Obviously, as I have said before, inconsistency is not a damning criteria for any foreign policy. We cannot intervene everywhere and do everything. But in the next paragraph he asserts that the United States cannot turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries, and asserts that as justification for acting. The reality is we do turn blind eyes, we do wait for images of slaughter and mass graves, and we will keep doing so in the future. Appealing to international consensus is a rhetorical escape, because then one can ask why did the US not try to forge an international consensus on actual, not probable mass violence in other countries, or equally odious regimes as Libya’s? Part of the explanation lies in US military capabilities, which I will discuss more below. Another part lies in the vague national interest Obama invoked previously in his speech:

Moreover, America has an important strategic interest in preventing Gaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful – yet fragile – transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power. The writ of the UN Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility to uphold global peace and security. So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.

Well, here we start to have some more concrete explanations for the use of force. The point about refugees and destabilization from Libya spilling over to Tunisia and Libya is valid. However, it does not automatically explain why the actions we took were the best policy. After all, the US could simply have set up safe zones and sanctuaries. In eastern Libya, this would not have been difficult, and would not have required air strikes in the west, at least against ground forces. West Libya will be massively destabilized if the civil war continues, even if the rebels are winning, since it will probably involve serious fighting in the region. Nor is it clear, why, if this is to help save Egypt, we are not more deeply involving Egypt in this process. It is the most concrete explanation of how Libyan intervention helps US interests in the broader regions, but it is not overwhelmingly compelling nor does it explain the particular actions we took.

The second explanation, the deterrence of dictators in other states, is far less compelling. Indeed, it is logically and empirically flawed. First, the United States and European states will not deter other states from undertaking mass violence if it believes the US is not setting a precedent and only acting on circumstantial opportunities. In other words, if the dictator in question is a US ally, or believes the US is too busy in its other three wars and military actions to intervene, action in Libya will not deter them.

In earlier posts, I maligned France’s foreign minister for assuming the Libyan intervention would scare Assad in Syria or the Saudi dynasty in its own country and Bahrain from quelling dissent. It was quite obvious that the intervention did not. With less ability to intervene and less political will, and no auspicious opportunity for US intervention, which Obama made a prerequisite to intervention, Saudi Arabia, the neighborhood gendarme freely rolled into Bahrain and did not blink during or after Libyan intervention. Syria, in the wake of Libyan intervention, stepped up its crackdown, and violence has continued in Libya. Deterrence only works with credibility, and each additional intervention in a peripheral area only reduces the credibility of US actions, since states assess threats not simply on precedent, but on rival capabilities and circumstantial interest.

The final explanation, preserving the credibility of the United Nations Security Council, is somewhat quaint. Imagine a world where the United Nations Security Council produced empty threats and unenforceable writ! I can understand why  Obama’s conception of grand strategy makes this more desirable, but a weak UNSC has rarely crippled US interests.

Then, after offering a sound critique of advocates for escalating intervention, the administration returns to the neglected question of, “what next?”

As the bulk of our military effort ratchets down, what we can do – and will do – is support the aspirations of the Libyan people. We have intervened to stop a massacre, and we will work with our allies and partners as they’re in the lead to maintain the safety of civilians. We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gaddafi leaves power. It may not happen overnight, as a badly weakened Gaddafi tries desperately to hang on to power. But it should be clear to those around Gadaffi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on his side. With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny, and that is how it should be.

There is a lot that makes sense here, but there is also a lot to unpack. First is, again, the assumption that the threat of mass civilian casualties is over, and the outcome will not require a re-escalation of military force. The second is dependent on the first being true. Yet Gaddafi may counter-attack and retake territory, which previously we defined as a severe threat to Libyan civilians. Will that mean a return of heavy airstrikes and offshore missile support? Will it mean we expect our allies to do it?

How much external support will be necessary for the rebels to win? They lack discipline, logistically challenged and may not hold up in a pitched offensive battle as they close on Gaddafi. Merely denying Gaddafi resources merely makes the civil war one of attrition, one where the political outcome becomes more questionable, and the humanitarian costs will increase. Are the Western states willing to provide arms a coterie of disorganized nationalists, Islamist groups, and even al Qaeda affiliated commanders to ensure a swifter victory over Gaddafi? Once again, the administration assumes that the “right side of history” will overcome these tough strategic decisions by precluding their advent.

Obama does dip tantalizingly close to explicitly stating a grand strategic criteria for intervention towards the close of his speech:

There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and common security – responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us, and they are problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.

In such cases, we should not be afraid to act – but the burden of action should not be America’s alone. As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action. Because contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.

The idea here is that national interests, when combined with American values and ability, will decide action. However, the criteria of national interests remains vague, because they are circularly integrated with leadership. Leadership is a national interest because it brings allies, and obligations to allies in turn generate national interests and values of coöperation we must protect, and so on. In this case, Obama frames Libya as a strategic interest to the US in crisis, in which international support provides a capability and American values provide legitimacy to act.

This is a somewhat backwards reading of what actually happened, though. The Obama administration, in the midst of a crisis, felt pressured to do something. This pressure increased, despite US reluctance, as European and Arab states lobbied for some kind of action. The burden being shared was not our burden, in fact, America was sharing Europe and the Arab world’s burden, by providing military capabilities they could not. The administration then feared that not acting to support the interests of these states would compromise the NSS by rendering its plan of cooperative security dead on arrival. The United States did not so much share its own burden as shoulder the burden of other states. Nor did it act in a way that best served the interests of its stated military goal of protecting civilians, or its stated overall policy goal of deposing Gaddafi. It did what it could do very well: it waged a high-tech campaign of aerial and offshore bombardment. The more subtle negotiations and political-economic efforts it needed to deal with uprisings in more strategically sensitive states, such as those in the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt were not its strong suit, and were not producing the desired “optics” on the US response to the Middle Eastern crisis.

In other words, presented with a situation the US acknowledged was mostly out of its hands, and feeling limited and unsuccessful in its attempts to influence it before, seized on an opportunity to do what the US was best at doing. The President’s speech helped articulate some of the White House’s thinking, which was sorely absent even when the TLAMs were flying. I still, however, fear that our intervention remains substitute for policy: a specific, limited offshore and aerial solution in a frustrating post hoc search of a problem to solve, all as greater strategic challenges for the United States still loom on the horizon in the region and beyond.

UPDATE: I realize this is coming down rather harsh, and the speech is doubtlessly stronger delivered than it is in text. It is also important to note that much of my criticism traces back to my problems with the NSS. To the extent this speech was a logical continuation of Obama’s Nobel speech and NSS, this was a solid piece of work.

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