Opinion writer March 24, 2011

Is it just me? Am I the only one who’s utterly confused about the rationale, goals, tactics and strategy of the U.S.-led military intervention in Libya?

Thought not.

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture, contributes to the PostPartisan blog, and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section. View Archive

I call it a U.S.-led operation because, people, let’s be real. Without U.S. diplomatic leadership, there would have been no U.N. Security Council resolution. Without U.S. military leadership, there would have been no coordinated shock-and-awe attack to put dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s rampaging forces back on their heels. On Thursday, after days of bickering, we heard a grand announcement that NATO will take command of at least part of the operation. Don’t believe it. The United States will be functionally in charge, and thus on the hook, until this ends.

So what the hell are we doing? I realize that President Obama and his advisers have answered this question many times, but I feel it’s necessary to keep asking until the answers begin to make sense.

The official mission, under the U.N. mandate, is to protect Libyan civilians. In other words, this is essentially a humanitarian intervention. I get that. After the horrors we’ve seen in Rwanda and Congo, in Bosnia and Darfur, I understand that a powerful moral and intellectual case can be made for using military force — and risking American lives — when it is clear that a slaughter is imminent and can be prevented.

Gaddafi’s armored columns were advancing on Benghazi and had other rebel strongholds such as Misurata under siege. As Obama said in Brazil, “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy, and ... innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government.”

Clearly, it seems to me, there will be occasions when humanitarian military intervention is our duty. This may be one of them. But the goal must be to prevent the bloodbath, not just reschedule it. Even after his forces have been pummeled by U.S., French and British airstrikes, Gaddafi has his ragtag opponents outmanned and outgunned. Unless we explicitly take the side of the rebels — providing air support for their advances, for example — it is hard to imagine how they will ever be able to take much ground.

In fact, it seems obvious that as long as Gaddafi remains in power, Libyan civilians are threatened — not just in Benghazi and other rebel-held territory, but in Tripoli and other parts of the country where the government still holds sway. There are neighborhoods of the capital where residents showed open opposition to Gaddafi at the beginning of the uprising. Aren’t these civilians in mortal danger? Don’t they need to be protected, too?

The only way to end the threat is to depose Gaddafi — which is what the United States wants to do. “It is U.S. policy that Gaddafi needs to go,” Obama said this week. So is that what we’re really doing in Libya, ousting a brutal dictator?

Absolutely not. The military mission is specifically limited to the humanitarian goal of protecting civilians. According to the White House, we’re not taking the rebels’ side — and we’re not using military means to unseat Gaddafi. Well, maybe someone will launch the occasional cruise missile at his compound, but it won’t be an attempt at regime change.

Maybe Gaddafi will make it easy for us and decamp to one of the few countries that might be willing to take him. But while he is battered, he’s far from defeated. What if he stays and fights, as he has repeatedly vowed to do. Then what?

To fulfill our mandate of protecting civilians, we’ll have to enforce the no-fly zone indefinitely. We’ll also have to provide tons of aid so that the rebels don’t starve. But if we’re not going to also give them weapons, it’s unrealistic to expect shotgun-toting shopkeepers and cabdrivers to vanquish what is left of Gaddafi’s professional army.

So is this the probable outcome, a divided Libya with Gaddafi holding the capital — and the oil-producing infrastructure — while the rebels effectively become wards of the United Nations? Or is it more likely that Libya devolves into “a giant Somalia,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fears?

Now that we’re involved in Libya, it may be that the only way to get uninvolved is to depose Gaddafi — which our military forces are specifically not allowed to do. Hence my confusion.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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