Libya: The Misdirected War

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security.


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The allies privately say they need U.S. A-10s in the fight. These heavily armed and thickly armored planes are designed to hunt and kill ground targets at close range. They were used to great effect in the first week of the Libya operation, when the U.S. was in the lead. But now they are on the bench, like most of America’s air assets.

What an ironic role reversal. In most NATO operations, it’s the U.S. that has to beg the allies to remove restrictions on their forces and commit more assets. Known as the “caveat” rule within NATO, these restrictions allow allies to opt out of certain missions. France, Germany, Italy and Spain, for instance, have played the caveat card repeatedly in Afghanistan. In late 2010, Denmark refused a NATO request for additional F-16 jets in Afghanistan. Italy doesn’t even permit its fighter-bombers in Afghanistan to carry bombs.

If civilian lives, America’s reputation and U.S. interests weren’t at stake, it would be difficult to blame Washington for relishing the way the tables have turned or even for experiencing some momentary schadenfreude.

But the reality is civilian lives and American interests are in play. Libya represents not just a humanitarian challenge. It also represents a real national security challenge. Libya’s former ambassador to the U.S. recently warned that, if left in power, Qadaffi would plot terrorist attacks against the United States. We know from his bloody record in the 1980s that Qadaffi has the capacity and means to deploy terrorists against U.S. targets overseas. And after being bombed for weeks or months by NATO, he will also have the motive.

Equally troubling when it comes to national security, Libya has an estimated 14 tons of mustard gas, according to intelligence sources cited by The Wall Street Journal. As the Libyan military splinters and as the country disintegrates, it’s not difficult to imagine those stockpiles falling into worse hands. The candidates are numerous: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; a rogue Libyan faction; Qadaffi’s mercenary army from Chad, Sudan and Niger; or a post-uprising Qadaffi—even more paranoid and more unhinged than the man President Reagan aptly described as “squalid” and “Looney Tunes.”

If the Obama administration didn’t care about the situation in Libya, it should never have signed up. Wars are not time-limited affairs and should never be treated as distractions or back-burner issues. But that’s what Libya appears to be for Obama. As a State Department official explains, “The U.S., of course, as needed, would help out if requested in other capacities. But, really, our role has receded.”

And it shows. As The Los Angeles Times reports, U.S. warplanes have bombed just three ground targets since that first-week flurry came to an end. Without the full complement of U.S. air assets, NATO simply cannot sustain the operational tempo or employ the tactics it brought to bear in the initial strikes on Qaddafi, which explains why NATO appears to be failing at the crucial part of this mission: protecting the Libyan people from Qaddafi and his henchmen. Benghazi may be shielded, but the rest of Libya is not.

This was foreseeable in two ways: On a micro, mission-specific level, as Gen. Charles Horner, who commanded coalition air forces during Desert Storm, predicted weeks ago, “Failure to fully unleash air power will allow Qaddafi to play for time…and otherwise frustrate the coalition’s attempts to protect Libyan civilians.” If the U.S. Air Force is on the bench, NATO is, by definition, failing to fully unleash its air power.

On a more macro, alliance-wide level, a NATO military operation not led by the U.S. military is a risky experiment. That’s because the United States invests in defense. The rest of NATO, by and large, does not. While the United States spends about 4 percent of its GDP on the common defense—a GDP that is enormous relative to that of its NATO allies—only five NATO members meet the alliance’s standard of investing 2 percent of GDP on defense. Even Britain, America’s nearest technological peer within NATO, invested only 2.9 percent of GDP on defense in 2010. And that number is plummeting amid Britain’s massive defense cuts.

This is not to say that the experiment known as Unified Protector will fail, but rather that “time-limited, scope-limited” wars are not the best way to solve problems like Qaddafi—and that neither NATO nor the world is ready for the United States to recede into a “supporting role.”

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.

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  • Jim

    They think it is a war to far.

  • Bamaguje

    "let’s stipulate that intervention prevented Moammar Qaddafi from turning Benghazi into another Srebrenica and the rest of eastern Libya into another Rwanda. The U.S. in specific and NATO in general deserve credit for preventing such a massacre." – Alan Dowd

    This crap about "protecting civilians" and "preventing massacre" is all bull. In the cities (Ras Lanuf, Misrata etc) Ghaddafi retook before NATO's ill-thought intervention, there were no reported massacres by any of the major news media.

    On the contrary NATO's idiotic intervention together with the ongoing arming of the Islamist rebels by outside powers has unnecessarily prolonged and escalated the conflict which should have been over 3 weeks ago had Ghaddafi been allowed to unify the country…and Libyans would have started rebuilding.

    Instead the prolonged and escalated war has increased the suffering and fatalities among the Libyan people whom UN/NATO purportedly intervened to protect.

  • Bamaguje

    Why isn't NATO bombing Syria where hundreds of anti-Assad supporters were gunned down in Daraa?
    Where was Obama when Ahmedinajad/Khamenei's Basij goons mowed down and incarcerated hundreds of Iranians protesting the rigged 2009 election?

    We are still waiting for NATO intervention to "protect" the protesting Bahraini Shiite majority from the brutal crackdown by Sheik Hamad Khalifa ruling Sunni minority and Saudi mercenary troops.
    America duplicitously condones the killing of Shiite protesters in Bahrain, because Sheik Hamad Khalifa hosts the US Navy 5th fleet that polices the Persian gulf.

  • BS77

    Situaiton in Libya is a total chaotic mess now….another billion dollars up in smoke. How many elderly, men, women and children are now refugees in that poor country???

  • ObamaYoMoma

    Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of intervening in Libya. Indeed, conservatives are divided over the war, with some arguing that intervention was unnecessary because Libya poses no threat to U.S. interests, others arguing that supporting the rebels is very much in the American tradition of assisting pro-freedom movements,

    Those that called for intervening in Libya, like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and others aren’t true conservatives, they are RINO neo-cons. RINO neo-cons are like leftists, in that they have extremely hard times learning from past mistakes. They are also incredibility blinded by political correctness and multiculturalism too, and they believe in deploying America’s power for what they consider to be the collective good of the world as opposed to what is good for America and in America’s interests. In other words, they are loons.

    For instance, if they weren’t so blinded by political correctness and multiculturalism, they would know already that the only freedom that Islam allows is the freedom for Muhammadans to become more devout slaves of Allah. Hence, in that regard all Muhammadans without exception are the enemies of the West, as Islam is an ideology of submission, whereby a Muhammadan is either the devout slave of Allah or otherwise a blasphemous apostate that must be executed. Hence, a Muhammadan must accept the dictates of Islam without question or otherwise be executed, and Islam commands all Muhammadans to wage jihad against unbelievers for the spread of Islam, which makes all devout Muhammadans our enemies and the enemies of all unbelievers.

    Hence, our insane humanitarian mission in Libya was to intervene to stop the alleged slaughter of our enemies. The USA should not be intervening to stop Muhammadan on Muhammadan violence because they are our enemies, it should instead be fomenting and inciting Muhammadan on Muhammadan violence.

    let’s stipulate that intervention prevented Moammar Qaddafi from turning Benghazi into another Srebrenica and the rest of eastern Libya into another Rwanda. The U.S. in specific and NATO in general deserve credit for preventing such a massacre.

    I’m sorry but that is complete and utter BS! That assumes the rebels were too stupid to retreat and get out of harms way, and I dare you cite the faked Srebrenica massacre that was concocted by Muhammadans in cooperation with the leftwing media to invert reality and to dupe US and NATO forces to fight a jihad for Islamic supremacism against the Christian Serbs. If ever there is a sad chapter in American history, American betrayal of our Christian Serb allies in Bosnia and Kosovo is it, and the author of this pathetic article is obviously one of those RINO neo-cons I described above.

    Moreover, if ever there was an opportunity to give the French a big fat bird for its opposition to the Iraq war, this was it. Nonetheless, the USA like France’s poodle jumped to attention just like a loyal lapdog.

    In addition, the same loons that called for the intervention in Libya are the same loons that called for pursuing endless fantasy based nation-building missions in Afghanistan and Iraq to win the hearts and minds of Muhammadans who are obligated to have nothing but enmity in their hearts for unbelievers, which is why we are still stuck in the muck in Afghanistan and Iraq after all these many years in missions that have already failed because they never had a chance for success from the very beginning, since they were based on political correct myths.

    Libya’s former ambassador to the U.S. recently warned that, if left in power, Qadaffi would plot terrorist attacks against the United States.

    How ironic, since it was a RINO neo-con administration that took Qaddafi off the State Department’s terrorist sponsoring list and normalized relations with that terrorist!

    which explains why NATO appears to be failing at the crucial part of this mission: protecting the Libyan people from Qaddafi and his henchmen.

    The Libyan people are Muhammadans and as such our enemies you loon!

    • Mohamed -cairo

      thanks to john mc cain and joe liberman, for supporting the insurgents in lybia and the Arab revolution

      • ObamaYoMoma

        Yeah right…you love gullible useful idiots.

  • Wesley69

    If we are not there to win and US our full power, we need to get out, just as we should In Afghanistan.

    Obama took us to war under a UN mandate. He did not notifiy Congress or ask for authorization. This action is illegal and constitutes abuse of power.

    Congress should demand an immediate withdrawal and cut off funds.

  • socal

    Americans assisting in pro- freedom movements? A tradition unlike any other! Has a sort of altruistic ring to it dont it. I hardly think assisting a movement that allows them the FREEDOM to one day become your enemy exchanging one Dictator for another ie SHARIA LAW and birthing a radical islamic government at the same time should bring to mind the American Revolution!

    • Mohamed -cairo

      i love your john macain and joe lieberman lol

  • morris wise

    Investors need rulers that do not not tax them. The removal of Gadhafi will help investors keeps their profits. The new rulers will be investors elected by people who need jobs.

  • UCSPanther

    My prediction of what will likely happen in Libya: NATO will pull out, Gadaffi will launch a massive offensive, paint Benghazi and other rebel strongholds red, and then brag that he has survived 46 challenges to his over 40 year-old reign.

  • jewdog

    The only thing about Libya that should interest the US is its oil. We should go in and take it, thereby neutralizing that barbaric Islamic hellhole for good. The charmimg yutzes of Libya can then, as Cato once put it, be left with snakes, heat, thirst and sand.