Despite the warnings from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates weeks ago that enforcement of a “no-fly zone” over Libya would be tantamount to war, that’s exactly where we find ourselves today.
After cautiously relying on international support for halting Col. Moammar Qaddafi’s war against an eastern Libyan-based rebellion, the Obama administration eventually relented under French, British and Arab League pressure to take the lead in launching major combat operations.
Calls to action from unlikely allies in the Senate -- including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), also made a difference. Authorization by the U.N. Security Council last week formally sealed the deal.
Though the U.S. has reluctantly been dragged into yet a third war in a Muslim-majority country, most of the talk from government officials thus far has focused on the successful military strikes, without much said about potential long-term impacts. Other than the coalition ruling out the use of ground troops -- seeking to avoid the long occupations and heavy casualties seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, this doesn’t address the variety of other serious risks from the Pandora’s box that we’ve just opened.
So what should we do next to avoid the mistakes of the past? Here are the top three moves:
1. We Must Finish the Job
While U.N. Security Resolution 1973 calls for use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, it stops short of calling for Col. Qaddafi’s ouster. That language sounds vaguely familiar to what we heard when we moved to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. That went down but then we saw the U.S. come back for Saddam in 2003 after a dozen years of provocations -- including similarly brutal crackdowns against his own people. Qaddafi, an unhinged dictator whom President Reagan famously dubbed the “Mad Dog of the Middle East,” is now promising a “long war.” Let’s not give him the opportunity to wage it.
2. Bolster Transportation Security Checks Worldwide
After the U.S. launched air-strikes on Libya in 1986, Col. Qaddafi retaliated two years later by ordering two of his intelligence agents to place a bomb onboard Pan Am Flight 103 which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. Since Qaddafi has chosen to label Western military strikes as “terrorism,” this ought to signal that he intends to repay the favor. While civilian airliners have made attractive targets for terrorists, we shouldn’t rule out Libyan agent and/or sympathizer attacks on other forms of transportation.
3. Push Allies and Partners to Bear the Costs
Driven by unrelenting domestic pressure, the French and British have been pushing for the “no-fly zone” option. However, most of the heavy metal is being dropped by U.S. forces. Further, given our command and control superiority, it’s been a U.S.-led operation.
The attack’s first phase featured French jets, plus two U.S. Navy destroyers and three submarines, joined by one British submarine shooting 112 Tomahawk missiles that targeted Libya’s air defense systems. U.S. Air Force B-2 stealth bombers flew a round trip mission from Missouri.
Meanwhile, the Arab League, which urged the U.N. to adopt the “no-fly zone,” was absent except for four Mirage 2000 fighter jets sent by Qatar days after the operation began.
Once Libya is broken, the nations that led the charge for combat operations need to shoulder the financial responsibilities and help the country get back on its feet.
Though the “no-fly zone” will arguably save lives and avert a humanitarian crisis in the near term, the apparent lack of comprehensive plan to deal with the aftermath may result in even more of a bloodbath. If Qaddafi is not toppled by the rebellion, his loyalists and mercenaries may likely keep on attacking the rebels -- if not en masse with jets and tanks, then “house to house” as he has promised. What then?
Let’s hope the decision to commit U.S. forces to a war of our choosing, without a clear exit strategy, does not lead to unintended consequences which may make things worse. After all, isn’t that just the sort of thing that presidential candidate Barack Obama campaigned against?
J.D. Gordon is a communications consultant to several Washington, D.C. think tanks. He is a retired Navy commander who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2009 as the Pentagon's spokesman for the Western Hemisphere. For more on J.D. Gordon visit www.gordoncohenstrategies.com