I’ve given a little (not enough) thought to the issues surrounding our intervention in Libya.  There seem to me to be three questions.

First, is this a prudent exercise of American military power?  The best consideration of this question that I’ve seen is Adam Garfinkle’s “Down the Rabbit Hole.” A snippet:


A no-fly zone cannot, and never could, end this fight among the Libyans. This is not a set-battle conventional war; it’s a messy insurgency/counterinsurgency brawl without fixed fronts or large concentrations of forces. Air forces can do only so much, even with special-forces spotters on the ground helping them. And they can do less in the face of the fiction that their mission is to protect “civilians.” Indeed, if we take the UN resolution and the President at their word, what exactly do senior U.S. commanders tell their pilots? What possible ROEs make sense in a situation like this, where we are intelligence blind as well as way too high in the sky to distinguish friend from foe and avoid friendly-fire catastrophe? . . .

Clearly, only boots on the ground of one sort or another can oust Qaddafi and his bloodthirsty son, which is, again, the only way to bring the current phase of fighting under control. Whose boots will they be?

The President prefers that the “Libyan people” do it by themselves. That is of course preferable, but it is not and never was very likely. The rebels say, in effect, “Sure, we’ll do it; we just need your air forces to pummel the regime into clouds of pink meat for us first.” That is tantamount to not exactly doing it all by themselves, and it certainly asks the pilots to do vastly more than protect civilians.

Suppose, then, that the French take their mission definition seriously and determine to go in on the ground to finish Qaddafi and son. Can French forces actually do this? Assuming they can get to the fight in sufficient numbers and hook up with the opposition (French and British special forces have been quietly on the ground in Libya now for weeks), can they prevail? This is not clear. What if the British help a lot? Can the two allies together do it, not as a NATO operation (unless the French relent on that point) but as something else, and a something else that will have neither UN nor Arab League imprimatur? (The relevant UN resolution explicitly rules out foreign troops on Libyan soil, and the Arab League will never endorse the return of “colonialist” forces to the region.)  Under these political circumstances, and with an abstinent German government snarking unhelpfully over their shoulders, it is by no means clear that a major Franco-British effort will be forthcoming, or that if it is it will succeed. Echoes of Suez?

So what happens if the French and British try but do not succeed in a reasonably expeditious way? What happens is about as obvious as it gets: not Suez happens.  The Americans come and save the day, as they demurred from doing in October 1956.  The French and British know in their heart of hearts that we cannot let them fail miserably at this, or that’s what they suppose. I suppose they’re right.

What this means is that the President may before very long be forced to make the most excruciating decision of his life: to send American soldiers into harm’s way to save the Western alliance—even from an operation that is not explicitly a NATO mission!—in a contingency that has no strategic rationale to begin with; or not, leaving the alliance in ruins and Qaddafi bursting with plans to exact revenge.

I think the President simply cannot allow that latter outcome. So this is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill mission creep we’re about to encounter if our allies cannot turn the trick. That’s why I propose naming the next stage of the coalition mission, should it assume a U.S.-led shape and dimension, Operation Rapid Serpent.


The second question is whether the undertaking is constitutional.  National Review Online ran a symposium on that topic this morning.  Let’s just say that President Obama has not displayed much evidence of either his previous statements on the subject (as candidate and as Senator, though the two are barely distinct) or of his training as a “constitutional lawyer.”  What’s more, President Obama’s willingness to explore the limits of executive authority (at least vis-a-vis Congress) seems far less modest than that of his predecessor.  I especially liked Jeremy Rabkin’s observations:
What is most troubling is the suggestion that authorization from the Security Council makes it unnecessary to get separate authorization from Congress. President Truman did make that claim in 1950, but no president has claimed sole authority from the U.N. since then. It’s not a matter of formalities. If the justification is a U.N. mandate, then we seem to be constrained by the terms of the Security Council resolution — which may be why President Obama has several times said that he seeks the ouster of Qaddafi, but that Qaddafi’s removal is not the aim of our military actions.

A president who seeks authorization from Congress has to explain and defend his policy . That’s a constraint presidents ought to be willing to accept before they place American forces in harm’s way. It’s hard to mobilize support for military operations when their object seems to vary from one day to the next. But without clear authorization, the president may be tempted to adjust his aims to what he thinks can still be supported — from day to day or week to week. That’s political theater, not military strategy.


The third issue has to do with the justice of the intervention.  There’s food for thought here , here , and here .  Of course, it seems to me that we can’t answer the third question without having satisfactory answers to the other two, even if those answers don’t settle the matter.  I’ll give it some more thought and perhaps have more to say later.

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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