More than a month after President Obama involved the United States. in Libya’s civil war, there is no end in sight. The risk is high that as fighting drags on, the very things the president wanted to avoid will occur: a military quagmire and a humanitarian disaster. Rather than hope for an unlikely diplomatic solution, the U.S. should enable the rebels to win for themselves.
When the Libya uprising began in February, the administration’s reaction was deeply affected by the Iraq War mythology on which President Obama sought office: that the U.S. had improperly acted unilaterally, hastily, and without regard for the United Nations, an exit strategy or a grasp of the challenges posed by a dictator’s demise. Not wishing to repeat past mistakes, real or imagined, Mr. Obama eschewed low-risk, low-cost steps to help the rebels in the early days when they held the initiative and Qaddafi was facing protests in Tripoli itself.
Political recognition and aid with communications, information operations, intelligence and basic materiel that would have been decisive early in the war were rejected. Instead, the administration undertook weeks of deliberations in Washington, New York and European capitals that proved invaluable to Qaddafi, soothing to U.N. boosters and unhelpful to the rebels where it mattered at the time—on the ground in Libya. When war came, President Obama did not define victory.
The eventual application of air and naval power prevented a military defeat and likely massacre of the rebels and their supporters in Benghazi. But since then, in most of the instances where rebels have gone on the offensive, they have been rebuffed.
Now the situation risks becoming a quagmire. President Obama conceded as much when he said last week that the situation was a “stalemate on the ground militarily.” His seesaw application of force has created one.
As combat drags on, the humanitarian toll on the Libyan people can only increase. U.S. interests are also at stake. A prolonged civil war can provide a political vacuum and degree of despair that have proven hospitable to Islamists elsewhere. Foreign fighters with anti-democratic goals may arrive in increasing numbers and gain influence.
Furthermore, regardless of the involvement of NATO, the fact that U.S. forces have been engaged means that Qaddafi’s survival would be seen around the world as a U.S. defeat. This can only encourage other adversaries.
Mr. Obama’s desire for the U.S. not to lead has also predictably gone awry. Even as command has passed to NATO, we have not extricated ourselves from fighting, nor do we appear able to do so. Defense Secretary Gates testified to Congress on March 31 that soon “We would not be participating in the strike missions.” Yet two weeks later, a Pentagon spokesman blithely noted that U.S. warplanes had again been involved in bombing Libya. Just this week, President Obama committed armed drones to the fight. More escalation is likely: NATO commanders have begged for more U.S. military assets.
What then is the Obama administration’s exit strategy? More recently, Mr. Obama has seemingly warmed to the idea that a rebel victory is necessary to end U.S. military involvement. On April 14, he joined British and French heads of government writing that “Qaddafi must go and go for good,” and “so long as Qaddafi is in power, NATO must maintain its operations.”
Despite the clarity of that objective and an apparently open-ended military commitment, the White House and coalition partners still hope for a political solution to the problem—and indeed have no coherent alternative plan. This is likely what motivated the secretary general of NATO when he said earlier this month that “there can be no solely military solution to the crisis in Libya.”
But the alternative of a diplomatically brokered outcome cannot work. Qaddafi has survived the uprising so far and believes he is past the maximum extent of coalition military involvement. He has reneged on ceasefires and can be expected to do so again. A deal will also leave a historical sponsor of global terrorism in control of half a country, with a newfound feeling of immortality and many scores to settle abroad.
To end the emerging quagmire in Libya, President Obama should take steps to aid a rebel victory on the ground. Ending the war quickly and favorably is the most humane path for Libya, and the one that advances U.S. interests. But we need not risk American lives or money.
The U.S. should facilitate limited arms sales to the rebels—which can augment the training that Britain and other countries have recently announced they will provide. While the rebels have been panned for poor performance on the battlefield, Qaddafi loyalists face the impediments of a poorly motivated force constituted largely for internal repression with little combat experience.
Limited training and modest weaponry for the rebels—at no expense to the U.S. taxpayer—could tilt the balance. When combined with better coordination with NATO air and sea power, the war could be brought to a faster, favorable end. That is the best path to end this deadly quagmire—and limit the suffering of the Libyan people.
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).