After nearly a month of signaling disinterest in or outright opposition to imposing a no-fly zone against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, President Barrack Obama did a 180-degree reversal last week. By endorsing a no-fly zone, and an even broader mandate to protect innocent civilians, America and several allies have begun a military intervention into Libya’s civil war.
We should fervently hope that our ongoing display of raw military force is enough to break Qaddafi’s will, or at least the will of those still loyal to him. After all, the 2003 overthrow and subsequent capture of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was enough to convince Qaddafi to renounce his nuclear weapons program, and similar shock and awe could work again.
But even if it does, we cannot overlook the grave policy mistakes that preceded our ultimate success. Prompt, conclusive victory in Libya will be attributable to the force of our arms, not our political strategy and accompanying diplomacy, which stumbled from one mistake to another before Obama’s eleventh-hour turnaround. To avoid repeating these mistakes with a potentially far worse outcome in another crisis, consider the following things not to repeat.
First, do not wait until it’s almost too late. Had America intervened in the opening days of Libya’s conflict, such a prompt and decisive move could have tipped the balance in the opposition’s favor. By thus demonstrating to Qaddafi’s loyalists he had no hope of retaining power, we might have ended his regime with far less risk of casualties and protracted engagement than we face today. Instead, by dithering for a month on whether to use force, Obama raised both the risks and the grave consequences of failure or stalemate.
Second, do not embrace confused and imprecise mission objectives. Obama, his key advisers, and our coalition partners are at sea on whether overthrowing Qaddafi is our ultimate objective. That should be the goal, and we should not hesitate to say so.
Obama confuses things when he says Qaddafi’s departure is a “political” but not a military objective, thus highlighting the glaring disjunction in his strategic thinking. Obama also said that “the writ of the international community must be enforced. That is the cause of this coalition.” What does that really mean?
Obama’s stated objective of “protecting innocent civilians within Libya” is actually more ambiguous than flatly endorsing regime change. As Washington has emphasized for weeks, the most acute threat to Libya’s people is precisely Muammar Qaddafi. How can the civilians be protected while allowing him to remain in power in any part of Libya? Moreover, on Friday, Obama demanded unconditionally that Qaddafi withdraw from three Libyan cities he already controls or where he is engaged. If Qaddafi fails to withdraw, but otherwise observes a cease fire, is Obama really prepared to continue using military force to drive Qaddafi from these cities? And why those cities and not others where Qaddafi has used military force indiscriminately?
Third, do not diffuse political authority, and therefore ultimate responsibility. By not making any political commitment before approval by the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League, Obama pursued the mistaken notion he could mute criticism of the United States. Plainly, however, decisive political leadership in using military force maximizes its chances for subsequent political acceptance. By hiding behind others rather than demonstrating U.S. leadership, Obama risks confusing both the political direction of and responsibility for his decision to put American forces in harm’s way.
Obama has made the same mistake on military command and control. His own advisers have said unambiguously we will transfer the initial American command to our allies within days. This decision to cede not just political but even military leadership of the operation may become the biggest mistake of all. Once ceded, there is no guarantee we can reclaim it or exercise it effectively if circumstances warrant. And Obama’s repeated statements that “the United States did not seek this outcome” simply underscore his lack of comprehension of what is required for successfully using force. What a way to send our military personnel into battle.
Fourth, do not bet on partners who may not have the military capability to achieve the objectives. Obama has emphasized that America’s role will be limited: “the United States will contribute our unique capabilities at the front end of the mission to protect Libyan civilians, and enable the enforcement of a no-fly zone that will be led by our international partners.” Similarly, he stressed that “our British and French allies, and members of the Arab League, have already committed to take a leadership role in the enforcement of this [Security Council] resolution, just as they were instrumental in pursuing it.”
The clear implication is that America’s combat role will diminish after the opening attacks. But what if the allies are unable to sustain the necessary military effort? And while no one is eager for ground action in Libya, Obama gravely erred in ruling out that possibility. In effect, he is still campaigning against the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, but such backward-looking domestic political concerns should play no role in American military strategy.
The initial display of allied, primarily American, firepower was impressive and effective, and thankfully without casualties on our side. The weight of the military onslaught may bring about Qaddafi’s speedy departure from Libya, perhaps physically as well as politically. This should be our objective, despite the uncertainty of what regime will follow him.
Make no mistake, Obama’s incompetent handling of Libya before and after the decision to use force has only confirmed the widespread impression he is a weak leader, unable to handle the president’s weighty responsibilities in the international and military spheres. Worldwide, friends and adversaries alike have seen this weakness, and they will not hesitate to act upon in the future. Therein lies real peril for our country.
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, is a Fox News contributor and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations" (Simon & Schuster, 2007).