World Politics Review | 3.29.11
World Politics Review Special Report | 5.1.11
By Alan W. Dowd

Operation Odyssey Dawn, the codename for U.S.-led airstrikes in Libya, is decidedly different than the ongoing military operations underway in Iraq and Afghanistan in at least one sense: Unlike those wars, which President Barack Obama inherited from his predecessor, Libya is President Obama’s war from start to finish. As such, it offers us the first true picture of how this commander-in-chief commands—and how he believes U.S. force should be employed. 

One thing we have learned is that the president is very much a reluctant warrior. To be sure, there are benefits to husbanding U.S. military power, especially with U.S. forces so deeply engaged in and/or committed to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea and the Asia-Pacific region, where a rising China looms. But there are also risks, especially in an era when so much of the world tacitly or openly depends on Washington to keep the peace or at least keep the bad guys at bay.

The president’s reluctance to employ U.S. force was evident even before he launched what his press secretary calls a “time-limited, scope-limited” operation. Take, for example, the president’s statements on Libya in early March, which made him sound more like the executive director of a D.C. think tank than the man in charge of U.S. foreign policy, let alone the commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces: “We’ve organized,” the president explained, “a series of conversations about a wide range of options that we can take.”

Just as bad, the administration has been anything but unequivocal when it comes to Khadafy’s future. Before the allied bombs started falling, the president said he was in “consultation with the international community to try to achieve the goal of Mr. Khadafy being removed from power…We’re going to take a wide range of actions to try to bring about that outcome…and work with the international community to try to achieve that.”

Not exactly “Bear any burden” or “Tear down this wall.”

Although the president has since called for Khadafy to step down, he was noticeably silent on the issue during his speech announcing the start of the war. Moreover, his surrogates and military team have muddied the waters. The goal of Odyssey Dawn, according to Sen. John Kerry, one of the president’s allies in Congress, “is not to get rid of Khadafy” because “that’s not what the United Nations licensed.” White House speechwriter Ben Rhodes says “the effort of our military operation is not regime change.” Yet according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the “final result of any negotiations would have to be the decision by Colonel Khadafy to leave.” Then again, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, concedes that a military stalemate resulting in Khadafy staying in power is “a possibility.”

The admiral is right. A stalemate—with western Libya controlled by Khadafy loyalists and eastern Libya controlled by the Benghazi rebels—is not only possible, but perhaps probable. If the battle lines on the ground do settle into a stalemate, it will be due to the fact that so much was left up in the air by Washington. “The start of this war was characterized by half-measures, ill-defined thinking and conflicting political objectives,” observes Gen. Charles Horner, the now-retired commander of coalition air forces during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

A second thing Odyssey Dawn has highlighted about the president’s view on the application U.S. military force is the paramount importance he places on gaining international consent to authorize and legitimize such action. The administration sought and has repeatedly cited the endorsements of the United Nations, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Arab League for the Libya intervention. Setting aside the conundrum of seeking legitimacy from organizations that don’t necessarily find their legitimacy in the consent of those they claim to represent, building broad international support for military action has its advantages. Shared responsibility ideally means shared burdens. Of course, it also can mean that operations are limited to the lowest common denominator agreed upon by the coalition. And sometimes it means as much work is put into holding the coalition together as carrying out the mission that brought the coalition together.

The Arab League, for example, asked for international intervention and promptly criticized the U.S.-led air armada after the intervention began. The GCC refuses to call the allied intervention an “intervention.” 

In practice if not in name, NATO is ostensibly in charge of the operation in Libya, which makes sense given that the bulk of the air- and sea-launched strikes are being shouldered by the U.S., Britain, France, Canada and other NATO nations. But in an echo of NATO’s Kosovo intervention in 1999, this war by committee is producing its share of headaches, not the least of which relates to who will be in charge after the U.S. hands off command of the mission. Germany has threatened to withdraw if NATO tries to do too much. Italy warns that it will block the use of its airbases if NATO isn’t fully in charge. France wants to bypass NATO altogether and develop a Franco-Anglo-American command. And Turkey has lectured the rest of the alliance about “pointing a gun” at Libya.

Trying to keep all 28 members on the same page, NATO has agreed only to take over enforcement of the no-fly zone and has sidestepped the issue of humanitarian intervention to protect civilians, something that the UN resolution expressly calls for: member states are authorized to “use all necessary means…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.”

Indeed, according to Sen. Kerry, the West is acting in order “to prevent a dictator from dragging people out of hospital beds.” That’s a noble objective, to be sure, and if anyone has forfeited his right to govern, it’s the thug who runs Libya. But one wonders how a no-fly zone and a “time-limited, scope-limited” air war will prevent the dictator and his henchmen from doing that.

This is not to say that the airstrikes on pro-Khadafy forces are doomed to fail, but rather that political leaders—especially President Obama—need to be realistic about what such an ambiguous and ambivalent military operation can achieve.