The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Down the Rabbit Hole
Published on March 22, 2011

To all appearances, U.S. foreign policy in the Obama Administration has now definitively gone down the rabbit hole. It is intoxicated with an advanced form of Wilsonian madness, one shorn of all sensitivity to the consequences of the U.S. government’s behavior. Like Alice with her pills, some things are getting or will soon get bigger—risks, mission definition and casualty figures on the ground in Libya—while others are getting smaller—our reservoir of good options, our stock of common sense and our peace of mind.

I do not invoke Lewis Carroll lightly. I do so in this case for a special reason: words we thought we all understood have now become encrusted with bizarre new meanings, or no meanings at all, as if our vocabulary has been hexed by Humpty Dumpty himself. Let me ask President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes and the rest of the crew (not to exclude accomplices like Nicholas Sarkozy, David Cameron, Ban Ki-Moon and the execrable Amr Moussa) that has steered us into this gratuitous mess, to define “civilian” for me. What does it mean, folks? Does it include fairly well organized groups of Libyans attacking in formation with machine guns mounted on flatbed pick-up trucks? Apparently so, to some spellbound souls. This turns the Clinton Administration’s amusing little tiff over what “is” is into truly small change as America’s language follies go.

Words of many kinds have been flying fast and furious over the past few days, and so have cruise missiles, bombs and bullets. Those I’ve taken most to heart are words of criticism for a policy so confused that no observer has yet been able to match the means being employed to the mission’s stated purpose. It’s not easy to say anything original at this point, but it seems to me that a simple recitation in the right order of what has already been said might be of some service to clear thinking. That recitation need be composed of just three key points.

* * *

First, the military mission lacks any realistic or coherent definition. As far as the authorizing UN resolution and President Obama have said, the mission is to protect civilians. This is a humanitarian action. But the civilians compose a political opposition locked in a literally life-and-death struggle with a frightened and ruthless regime—and it was the opposition, let us remember, that started this fight last month. We are, let us be frank, intervening in someone else’s civil war. There are no humanitarians, and very few mere civilians, in Libya right now, because the struggle has at its base a tribal conflict, which the U.S. media has managed to ignore almost in its entirety.

There is no mystery as to why the opposition arose in Benghazi, in Cyrenaica, while the capital and Qaddafi’s loyalists are mainly in the old province of Tripolitania. I frankly doubt whether the advisers egging the President on in Libya have ever heard these proper nouns before, or have heard of Sannusiya (the Sufi order movement that helped ignite Libyan opposition to Italian colonialism), or know much of anything at all about the place. For them, the history of the region seems to have begun in December 2010, when Mohammed Bouazzi immolated himself in Tunis. And surely the Western laws-of-war distinction between soldiers and civilians is universal, right?

U.S. policy, on its face, suggests the absurd notion that if the Qaddafi regime stops targeting “civilians”, then we are fine with its continued incumbency. Yes, the President has said many times lately that Qaddafi has to go, but he never said that U.S. military forces were to be the proximate agent of that outcome. This is a lawyer’s cleverness bucking up against reality, however, and in this instance at least, the lawyer is bound to convince no one. (It was a lawyer’s way of thinking, too, to have privileged the attainment of multilateral cover above the need to know what the hell one was actually doing.) Clearly, the only way to reliably protect these “civilians” is to change the regime. Having started this foolish war, that is the only way it can end without producing sheer calamity—not that any end state that one can reasonably foresee is risk-free at this point.

There is another reason why regime change has to displace an impossible humanitarianism as the policy’s goal: this is French policy, and the French seem bound to take the lead in this effort, if we can find a way to pass off the command to them, or to them in league with the British. French policy bears its own mysteries, to be sure, but a lack of clarity about the mission is not among them. The French early on recognized the rebels as the provisional government of Libya and have stated unequivocally that the end of the Qaddafi regime is the purpose of the intervention. It eludes me, I confess, why the French have been so adamant about Libya, and why now. It also eludes me why, after having rejoined NATO’s military structure in 2009, Paris now refuses to allow the mission to become a NATO operation. This is an insistence that makes life particularly hard for the very worried Italians who, above and beyond all Europeans are in Qaddafi’s crosshairs for, as he sees it, the sin of betrayal. (There are lots of Libyan émigrés on Italy, each of them now likely to be seen by some Italians as potential terrorists.) But at least President Sarkozy can string together two thoughts and conclude that nothing short of regime change can justify releasing all the demons that this war has already set free.

Second, the means don’t match the only plausible, logical definition of the mission. A no-fly zone cannot, and never could, end this fight among the Libyans. This is not a set-battle conventional war; it’s a messy insurgency/counterinsurgency brawl without fixed fronts or large concentrations of forces. Air forces can do only so much, even with special-forces spotters on the ground helping them. And they can do less in the face of the fiction that their mission is to protect “civilians.” Indeed, if we take the UN resolution and the President at their word, what exactly do senior U.S. commanders tell their pilots? What possible ROEs make sense in a situation like this, where we are intelligence blind as well as way too high in the sky to distinguish friend from foe and avoid friendly-fire catastrophe?

I recently spent five and a half days (February 22-March 1) aboard the USS Boxer, a helicopter landing deck ship with a crew of about 900 “blue” sailors and 1,800 “green” Marines. I had many conversations with officers and some enlisted men and women as we sailed from San Diego to Pearl Harbor on the first leg of their 7-month deployment, and some of those conversations were with Marine pilots of the Boxer’s 20 helicopters (Cobras and Hueys) and 6 Harrier jets. I can just imagine their eyes turning into saucers on getting orders to use their craft to protect “civilians” fighting in close-combat with Libyan army forces. I can imagine them wishing to reply, in effect, “You want me to do what, with a Harrier jet?!”, but holding their very patriotic tongues. Those must be something like the orders Marine pilots have already received on the Boxer’s sister ship, the USS Kearsarge, which is right now in the Med off the Libyan coast. These pilots will do their level best to comply with whatever ROE’s they’re given, but I feel deeply sorry for them as they confront orders to do the virtually impossible. I also feel badly for General Carter Ham, who is trying to put the best face he can on what he knows to be an incoherent set of orders. I wonder how Secretary Gates is feeling about all this? In a way it doesn’t matter now; it seems to me that he has no choice but to resign.

Clearly, only boots on the ground of one sort or another can oust Qaddafi and his bloodthirsty son, which is, again, the only way to bring the current phase of fighting under control. Whose boots will they be?

The President prefers that the “Libyan people” do it by themselves. That is of course preferable, but it is not and never was very likely. The rebels say, in effect, “Sure, we’ll do it; we just need your air forces to pummel the regime into clouds of pink meat for us first.” That is tantamount to not exactly doing it all by themselves, and it certainly asks the pilots to do vastly more than protect civilians.

Suppose, then, that the French take their mission definition seriously and determine to go in on the ground to finish Qaddafi and son. Can French forces actually do this? Assuming they can get to the fight in sufficient numbers and hook up with the opposition (French and British special forces have been quietly on the ground in Libya now for weeks), can they prevail? This is not clear. What if the British help a lot? Can the two allies together do it, not as a NATO operation (unless the French relent on that point) but as something else, and a something else that will have neither UN nor Arab League imprimatur? (The relevant UN resolution explicitly rules out foreign troops on Libyan soil, and the Arab League will never endorse the return of “colonialist” forces to the region.) Under these political circumstances, and with an abstinent German government snarking unhelpfully over their shoulders, it is by no means clear that a major Franco-British effort will be forthcoming, or that if it is it will succeed. Echoes of Suez?

So what happens if the French and British try but do not succeed in a reasonably expeditious way? What happens is about as obvious as it gets: not Suez happens. The Americans come and save the day, as they demurred from doing in October 1956. The French and British know in their heart of hearts that we cannot let them fail miserably at this, or that’s what they suppose. I suppose they’re right.

What this means is that the President may before very long be forced to make the most excruciating decision of his life: to send American soldiers into harm’s way to save the Western alliance—even from an operation that is not explicitly a NATO mission!—in a contingency that has no strategic rationale to begin with; or not, leaving the alliance in ruins and Qaddafi bursting with plans to exact revenge.

I think the President simply cannot allow that latter outcome. So this is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill mission creep we’re about to encounter if our allies cannot turn the trick. That’s why I propose naming the next stage of the coalition mission, should it assume a U.S.-led shape and dimension, Operation Rapid Serpent.

Third, we’ve started a war we won’t know how to end. We have a great deal riding on the success of the Franco-British operation, assuming one actually takes shape in a hurry. If it doesn’t work, the U.S. government is very likely going to be dragged, even with the President privately kicking and screaming all the way, to a mission definition (again, the only logical one available) that will presage an open-ended commitment. As I have said, a Qaddafi left armed and dangerous when the dust settles is an unacceptable outcome. Civilian planes will likely start failing out the sky, as did the one over Lockerbie; assassination attempts will multiply, like the attempted Libyan-backed murder of the Saudi king in 2003; al-Qaeda and affiliates might be aided and abetted to do Lord-knows-what to the Italians, the French, the British and, of course, to us. With nothing to lose, and way beyond the threshold of worrying about sanctions and such, Qaddafi could well become more dangerous than ever. If I were Silvio Berlusconi, in particular, I’d pick my future whorehouses with extreme care.

Ah, but suppose some boots on the ground do get Qaddafi and son; that, unfortunately, will not necessarily spell the end of the conflict. Of course, if democracy breaks out in a post-Qaddafi Libya, everything will be sunshine and roses—except that is about as likely to happen as a hookah-smoking caterpillar offering you a tuna on rye, with a pickle. Or about as likely as a clean and clear endpoint to the battle in Iraq ever was. Whenever there is a conflict in a far-off land between some protesting horde and some morally unaesthetic incumbent government, the Manichean American mind rushes ineluctably to the conclusion that the throng in the street has to be a democracy movement. It’s the Children of the Sons of Light against the Children of the Sons of Darkness over, and over, and over again, except of course that it’s  never that clear-cut. This amounts to a pre-adolescent understanding of any region, and the Arab world isn’t just any region.

As noted, there is a regional and tribal element to the fight in Libya. It is unlikely that the Benghazi-based rebels could by themselves establish stable control over the whole country. It is almost as unlikely that the Tripolitanian tribes could re-establish firm control over Cyrenaica. Qaddafi managed the feat through a combination of patronage, terror and cooptation. That will be a very hard act to follow in the wake of so much bloodletting. We are therefore looking into the maw of a Libya that may well be divided, in the throes of some kind of protracted, at least low-level civil war, and that could very easily produce an insurgency spilling over the Egyptian and Tunisian borders—complete with refugees, the usual dysfunctional NGO triage operations and all the rest. And in due course, if the fractious mess lasts long enough, there is a reasonable prospect that al-Qaeda will find a way to establish a foothold amid the mayhem.

Who will want to send in peacekeepers to baby-sit a Libya that looks like that? Who’ll want to go to the UN to get the job authorized? The African Union?

Now, given that this sort of problem is foreseeable, and that it was also foreseeable before the cruise missiles started flying on Saturday, it stands to reason that a responsible, serious government will have thought about all this in advance, and come up with some plan for the post-combat “Phase IV” of the Libyan War, right? Not on your life; the President and his war council almost certainly have not even begun to think about this sort of thing, because they’re still in denial that it could happen. This is, after all, just a limited, humanitarian mission as far as they’re concerned. They don’t realize it yet, but these guys are on a path to make even Donny Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks look good—and you thought that was impossible.

* * *

These three observations do not, of course, exhaust the madness of what the Administration has done. This Libya caper will constitute a huge, compound distraction. Not only will it distract us from longer-term challenges, mainly in Asia, that will determine the success or failure of America’s grand strategy of forward presence on the flanks of Eurasia, it will also distract us from even more portentous Middle Eastern dangers. Just yesterday the head of the Yemeni army withdrew his support for President Ali Abdullah Saleh. This portends a major, multifaceted tribe-and-clan based civil war with a potential to put core U.S. security interests at risk—for an anarchic Yemen, a mountainous country with four times the population of Libya, can host a sanctuary for al-Qaeda that will make their Taliban-era digs pale by comparison. And in Yemen, al-Qaeda already has a kind of defense-in-depth across the Bab al-Mandeb in what’s left of Somalia.

Even Bahrain is more important inherently than Libya; but that’s another story.

There is more, too—albeit of a more abstract nature. Before we started this crazy war, what was going on in the region was all about the Arabs—the good Arabs, the bad Arabs, the other Arabs, all the Arabs, some of the Arabs, whatever. In both their eyes and ours, it was about them. Now it is, or will soon be, about us. Every quark’s worth of negative energy in the region will in due course be drawn as if by a magnet to us, as the Arabs resume their favorite sport of exporting responsibility for their own circumstances onto others. We will subject the region, yet again, to the equivalent of the U.S. Heisenberg Effect, especially if we’re forced to bail out our allies. We’ve seen this film before. It’s a tragedy.

And finally, it bears note that the use of Western military power in Libya is bound to color the political processes going on in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and elsewhere. How will it color them? We have no clue, which is why launching a war without thinking about the broader consequences is, well—how to put it?—not a good idea. Some commentators, like one in today’s New York Times, for example, who have favored a forward-learning policy from the beginning of the Libya crisis, are now starting to worry about the possible downside implications. It used to be that serious people thought through the implications of policy proposals before they advocated them, and before the bombs and missiles started raining down. Better late than never? Maybe. Embarrassing in any case? Um…..

It wasn’t mad to advocate the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya two or three weeks ago. Some reasoned that the psychology of the thing might have been enough to push Qaddafi out when the battle was flowing against him. Some believed, against all evidence, that a no-fly zone could be militarily effective. Some have reasoned that Qaddafi would become more dangerous if he survived his domestic challenge even in the absence of a Western intervention, so we could not let him survive if the rebels could not finish him off. That was not evidence of madness either, but it was speculative enough, in my view, to counsel waiting a good long while before shooting. It also failed to reckon seriously the downside of the undertaking and to identify other policy options short of war.

What is crazy, however, is the consequences-be-damned argument for war on humanitarian grounds that the President has apparently embraced, and the utter vacuum of strategic thinking that seems to be its handmaiden. It would have been far better to leave this hornet’s nest alone, but now that we have poked it with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ordnance, the worst possible posture to adopt is that of a Boy Scout helping an old lady across the street when only that of a warrior (hopefully French and/or British) will do.

I wish the President had never opened his big eloquent mouth about Libya, and I wish we had not started this war; but wishing won’t make it go away. I have no intention of waxing banal and invoking Vietnam, because Libya has nothing to do with Vietnam; there are no quagmires in a place that, from a military point of view, is an island in the sense that every target worth hitting can be hit from the sea. But I do suspect that this can only end badly, and that what is left to policy at this point is to figure out the least bad of all possible outcomes and struggle toward it. It’s times like these that make me thank Heaven that I am no longer working for the U.S. Government. My best wishes to those who are; they now need all the luck they can get.