Does anyone think that the administration’s strategy for Libya is working? Respected defense expert Anthony Cordesman characterized the U.S.-backed NATO-led campaign as a farce — one that repeats virtually all the errors made by the Bush Administration in Iraq. The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, admitted the other day that the conflict was becoming stalemated. Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, the Canadian commander of the air campaign had an even harsher characterization of the Libyan situation and the effectiveness of NATO airstrikes. “It’s a knife fight in a phone booth and it’s very difficult to get in the middle of that.”
The administration has responded to the growing crisis in Libya by offering $25 million in nonlethal aid and by authorizing the use of armed Predator drones. But what is the point of bringing a UAV to a knife fight? How does feeding the Libyan rebels additional military assistance through an eyedropper help turn the conflict in their favor? It seems that the White House is more concerned with avoiding deeper involvement in Libya even if the price is losing the conflict.
The administration and NATO appear to have learned nothing from their failed efforts at gradually increasing diplomatic, economic and, finally, military pressure on the Ghadaffi regime. Neither is doing anything to prepare for a stalemate or, better still, to develop a strategy for turning the conflict around. The decision by the U.K., France and Italy to provide a handful each of trainers might have some effect six months from now. In the meantime, the very humanitarian disaster that the U.N. and NATO sought to prevent is occurring in Misrata.
Militarys are often accused of preparing for the last war. In this case it appears that the Obama Administration is focused solely on avoiding a repetition of the last ones, meaning the Bush interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem is that the military instrument is a blunt tool. While the White House desires to use it like a scalpel, what they hold in their hand is a hammer. Hitting Ghadaffi with a series of almost gentle love taps is not the equivalent of skillfully wielding the scalpel. There are reports that senior White House advisors — could this mean National Security Council advisor Tom Donilon — are extremely angry at the Pentagon for its inability to come up with options for Libya that are both highly effective militarily but extremely limited in scope, intensity and cost. Well, duh.
The Libyan campaign is coming apart just as the Department of Defense is undertaking a major roles and missions review in the context of the administration’s plan to cut $400 billion from the defense budget. It will be interesting to see what impact the current situation has on this review. One lesson that seems obvious is that if we expect there to be interventions in civil wars and national uprising we should be prepared for the consequences. This means being prepared to bring something more useful than a UAV to a knife fight.
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