President Obama decided late last week to begin military action against Libya. By doing so, America has entered not a third but a fifth war in Muslim lands (people tend to brush aside our limited warfare in Pakistan and Yemen, but that doesn't mean they don't exist). I used to scoff at the Pentagon's insistence (during the budget fights under President Clinton) that they be able to wage two wars simultaneously, but fighting only two wars now seems a bit of a quaint notion. President Obama has made a rather large gamble on Libya, but if things go well it might just become a model for American involvement in other twenty-first century conflicts. That a mighty big "if" at this point, I fully realize. But whether the gamble pays off or not for America (and for Obama), it shouldn't deter us from at least examining what Obama seems to be attempting.
Right now, confusion reigns on the subject of Libya. I'll get to all of that in a moment, but to me the more interesting thing is Obama's attitude towards the entire affair. You can almost read the caption the White House would dearly love to attach to the photos of Obama from the past few days: "Obama, The Reluctant Warrior." The White House knew full well the effect photos of the Obamas in Rio would have, and they chose not to postpone the trip anyway. This is not the way America usually heads off to war, to put it mildly. We're supposed to get an Oval Office speech from our president, in somber tones, explaining why we're now bombing a foreign land. Obama has now broken this mold. I would speculate that this is intentional, because Obama is trying to pass this whole thing off as "no big deal, really."
Rather than selling a war as an existential threat to America, American democracy, freedom, the flag, Mom, and apple pie (as pretty much every president has done for decades), this is something new -- war as a nuisance. War as a fly to be swatted down quickly. Just a quick war, then we'll move right along to other things. And since this is a new tactic for a president to take, the storm of Beltway criticism is thundering louder, and getting closer.
Amongst the wider criticism of Obama (from both sides of the political aisle) on Libya, there seems to be a basic contradiction. Obama is being criticized for either "allowing other countries to take the lead" on the initial military action, or "going it alone, and calling it a coalition." So, at the same time, critics are saying (1) we're not doing enough, and (2) we're doing too much. Which doesn't even touch on the strangeness of Democrats calling for Obama's impeachment, or Republicans agreeing forcefully with Hillary Clinton. To say nothing of the sheer idiocy of members of Congress (of both parties) complaining that Obama's on vacation during the start of a war -- while Congress itself is on vacation during the start of a war. As I said, confusion is king these days.
Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the rounds of the Sunday morning political shows yesterday, to lay out the Obama administration's plan for this war. Very few people in the media listened to what he said. The war plan for Libya -- if everything goes perfectly -- can be summed up as: "Lead the initial attack with cruise missiles. Spend a few days bombing command-and-control infrastructure, and generally kicking butt as we see fit. Take out as many Libyan Air Force assets as possible. Then turn the entire thing over to 'the coalition' and step back into a support role. Let the French, the British, and the Arabs (and anyone else who wants to join in) supply the warplanes and pilots to patrol the no-fly zone from this point onward, while American pilots fly the electronic jamming planes and intelligence aircraft necessary to provide the fighters with an accurate picture of what's going on."
That's the plan, in a nutshell. And this transfer of power -- Mullen couldn't say this enough, on every morning show which would have him -- is supposed to take place in "days, not weeks." Meaning this -- if the plan works -- could be the most limited war America's fought in a long time. President Obama is saying to the rest of the world:
"We heard your concerns, Britain and France. We heard your plea for a no-fly zone, Arab League. We helped get a strong resolution through the U.N. Security Council. We'll do the most technically-advanced fighting in the war, and clear the Libyan skies. But after that, we're going to turn it over to you, because we've just got too many other wars going on right now, so it's going to become your responsibility from that point on."
This is Obama's gamble. It is an interesting gamble for geopolitical reasons, because it could set a new model for American involvement in future conflicts of this type. Of course, it could spectacularly fail in any number of ways as well. What Obama is also gambling on is that if there is failure, it will happen long after we hand things off to other countries.
Ghaddafi could just hunker down and be a thorn in the world's side for years, as the situation in Libya becomes an endless stalemate. The rebels could still be defeated, albeit probably not as brutally as if the no-fly zone didn't exist. Foreign troops (although definitely not American troops, according to Obama) may eventually have to help the rebels out, if they have any hope of success. Ghaddafi could hit back using international terrorism (he's certainly done so before). There are a lot of chances for the whole thing to turn sour, it cannot be denied.
Which is why I'm not going to even guess at the chances that the Obama war plan is going to succeed or not -- because I feel it is way too early to tell. Although, if it does happen on schedule, this may become apparent very soon. Obama's nonchalance towards the entire Libyan situation is sending a message: "Really, this is no big deal -- we'll be in and out before you know it." This is part of his gamble, and may come back to haunt him in the same way all those "greeted as liberators" comments haunted the Bush administration, later on.
But to fully examine the picture, we have to at least consider the possibility that Obama's plan succeeds, to one degree or another. As well as what ramifications this would have on future conflicts for America. Up until recently, the Western World saw the United States as the unquestioned military leader in the their parts of the globe. This allowed Western countries to always let the United States bear the brunt of any military action. Europe, in particular, proved so ineffective in the wars in the former Yugoslavia (right in their backyard) that America eventually took the lead. But that was a while ago. More recently, N.A.T.O. was called on (in Afghanistan) to join in defense since one country in the alliance (America) had been attacked -- for the first time in its history. Going in to Iraq didn't have much of a coalition behind it, but the Afghanistan war did.
This time around, if you believe the facile media storyline, France and Britain were begging us to "do something" in Libya, before the rebel force was completely obliterated by Ghaddafi. The Arab League, too -- which was the stunning development that caused the U.N. resolution to pass, with even stronger language than expected. Obama, reluctantly (again, according to the media storyline, which I have no way of verifying), overrode his generals at the Pentagon who didn't want this mission, and listened to "the women" (yes, the media has already made this a girls-versus-boys playground fight... sigh), led by Hillary Clinton, who convinced him to act before the rebellion was crushed. The order was given, the cruise missiles flew.
No matter how the decision was made, we are where we are. The key question now is how soon we're going to hand this war over to someone else, according to the plan. Once the situation on the ground in Libya stabilizes (at least, with respect to creating the no-fly zone), Obama is going to tell the French, the Qataris, the British, the Saudis and all the rest of them: "OK, it's your war now. Your fighter planes must fly the missions to continue the no-fly zone. If any pilots get shot down, they are not going to be American pilots."
By doing so, the weight of the mission falls on other shoulders than America's. Which is fitting, since they were the ones clamoring for action in the first place. Between the European nations pledging support and the Arab nations, a sufficient number of planes could easily be mustered. If the no-fly zone mission turns into months or even years, then they (and not the United States) would bear the lion's share of the cost of keeping it going. If they backed out and gave up on the idea, it would reflect badly on them, and not so much on us. America would emerge as the country which lent its high-tech help to the initial phase of creating the no-fly zone, but then turned over the endgame to the countries who demanded action in the first place.
If it works out reasonably well, this could become a model for American involvement in future flareups. If a ruthless tyrant was massacring his own people, then regional military coalitions would be free to call for American action. America, as everyone knows, is very, very good at executing the initial phases of a war. Iraq proved that. But America, also as everyone should have figured out, is also not that good at getting out of such wars. Iraq -- once again -- proves this, too. But if our new model is to limit our major involvement to the opening phases of war, then the responsibility for solving these regional problems would fall to regional organizations with much bigger vested interests in the outcome than the United States.
Of course, this isn't a perfect answer because sometimes regional alliances strong enough to bear this responsibility simply don't exist. Obama's Libyan strategy has yet to play out, and it's impossible at this juncture to see what will happen next. Obama's gamble that America can join in the initial phase of a war and then extricate itself quickly is one of those ideas which sound really good on paper, before reality sinks in when they're actually attempted. Other presidents have had equally cheerful predictions about the length of American military involvement, which later proved to be embarrassingly shortsighted. But, I have to admit, that if the gamble pays off -- if America can prove to the rest of the world that it can lead when asked, but also relinquish control when we're no longer needed -- it could bear fruit in future conflicts of this nature. If it works, people might start speaking of Obama's gamble as the Obama Doctrine.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant