Of all the critiques of President Obama’s handling of Libya, one of the most damning is that he has failed to define victory—perhaps the most important step to justify military action to the American people. This is an essential job of the commander in chief. It is also relatively straight-forward with Libya.
Enabling rebels to win on the ground should be our primary goal. This would end the Qaddafi regime, which was deadly before this revolution and would be only more so if it survives. But just as important, it is now also the only way for the U.S. to extricate itself from this conflict without appearing to lose.
Whether intended or not, U.S. prestige and national interests are now tied inextricably with the fate of rebels opposing Qaddafi. Things headed in this direction on March 3rd, when President Obama essentially chose their side in the civil war. Then last Saturday, the president committed U.S. forces to the fight. While he has emphasized a desire that the U.S. portion of this effort be limited and diminishing, to date, most of the firepower has been American.
While it is unclear whether President Obama considered this in his weeks of deliberation before taking serious action, by committing overt U.S. military forces, anything short of a rebel victory would deeply harm U.S. interests. Were the U.S. to withdraw forces amid a rebel stalemate or defeat, friends and foes around the world would see this as an American defeat.
Specifically, it would reprise the view that Al Qaeda and other enemies held of the U.S. in the late 1990s. In that era, dubbed one of “Tomahawk Diplomacy,” the U.S. was seen as unwilling to use force beyond air strikes. After Al Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the U.S. responded only with ineffective Tomahawk missile strikes against targets in Afghanistan. Bin Laden and other enemies saw this as weak.
To guard against this, the U.S. should seek a rebel victory—and take steps to make that more likely on the ground. Existing military action that has ended Qaddafi’s use of aviation and destroyed select military targets aids this goal. However, ultimate victory requires taking ground from Qaddafi, which must involve ground forces. Luckily there is already a political and military force that can be helped to accomplish this—the rebels.
Various denizens of Washington’s foreign policy establishment have complained that we do not know who the rebels are or what they will do. It strains credulity to think that our $80 billion-a-year intelligence community and the immense bureaucracies of our national security-related agencies cannot figure this out. But given their track record, that may be the case.
Nonetheless, the rebels have organized politically into a 31-member Transitional National Council, which publicly lists its members, their background and their portfolios within the Council. Libya’s diplomatic mission to the U.S. has defected and now represents the Council. We can access many if not all of the leaders among this group. The fact that they have run Benghazi admirably and calmly since its self-liberation, and the apparent lack of Al Qaeda and other terrorist or Islamist forces is attractive.
This logical interim successor to the Qaddafi regime is far more transparent and well organized than in any of the other Arab-majority nations where revolutions have commenced. We should recognize this windfall and act. Of course, in a country with Libya’s history, there will undoubtedly be unpalatable figures in the mix, but we will never have perfect choices in situations like this. By getting involved, we can influence the ultimate outcome better, seeking real democracy and the rule of law, while making life hard for Islamists and their terrorist vanguard.
As our aviation-based intervention proceeds, we should liaise with this Council and seek victory for its military forces. Realistically, this needs to include selling them arms. Going farther, we could provide them with military intelligence and communications equipment, as well as basic materiel and humanitarian aid. We could also assist with training and planning. This would pave the way for a rebel-led offensive without involving U.S. ground forces in a protracted engagement. It would also provide for the possibly victorious end to the open-ended commitment in which the president has placed the U.S. (whether he recognizes it as such or not).
Those opposed to this might raise the U.N. arms embargo hastily and pointless passed on February 25. A since-fired State Department spokesman opined publicly on March 8 that this would make the provision of arms to rebels “illegal.” But as Senators McCain and Lieberman noted that same day, the embargo applies only to the “Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,” which is Qaddafi’s government—not the country of Libya.
Aiding the rebels politically and militarily to achieve their own freedom is the best strategy—and the only outcome that will be seen as a victory for the U.S. forces President Obama has already committed to combat.
Christian Whiton is a former U.S. State Department senior adviser and is a principal at D.C International Advisory. He is a frequent contributor to Fox News Opinion.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).