Pr esident Obama launched America’s military intervention into Libya promising two distinctive features. First, this would be a genuinely international effort, with the United States as the lead player initially but then quickly moving into a supporting role (in “days and not weeks”). Second, the direct American operation would be carefully restricted, “ time-limited and scope-limited ” in the words of White House spokesman Jay Carney. But two weeks in, one can already see the pressures — mostly in Washington — pushing the president to abandon both courses. He is now taking broad ownership of Libya, and the U.S. military is engaging in a broader air campaign . This is mission creep, and it is a bad idea.
Notice the shift in rhetoric, from the president’s circumspect words at the start of the operation to his much more expansive speech on Monday, emphasizing America’s lead role, even when the facts didn’t quite warrant it. Notice that air attacks on Moammar Gaddafi’s forces now go well beyond protecting civilians and are clearly escalating in the hope of getting some kind of quick victory. If the administration is not careful, it will end up in a very different place than it initially intended.
The president made a powerful, well-reasoned case Monday night for America’s intervention in Libya, marshaling the best humanitarian, strategic and political arguments as to why the United States could not have stood by and done nothing while Gaddafi’s forces massacred Libyan rebels. Besides, America’s closest allies were pleading for our help. But Obama did little to address the central strategic gap in his policy on Libya between its expansive goals — chiefly the ouster of Gaddafi — and its tightly defined military means. There are only two ways to close the gap — escalate the means or scale back your goals.
American statesmen have always experimented with the use of limited military means to support foreign policy interests that are important, and worth engaging American power, but not vital. From the Barbary wars (fought against the Barbary States, which included parts of modern Libya) to gunboat diplomacy in Asia to the many military interventions over the past few decades (Grenada, Lebanon, Somalia, the no-fly zone over Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo), the United States has often tried to find ways to use its military yet not engage in all-out war. Some were more successful than others, but in all cases, the central task was to find the balance between the goals we sought and the means we were willing to deploy. The time we didn’t ask questions about the costs and simply escalated the means, we ended up in Vietnam.
The tendency for a president is to be pushed to achieve a decisive victory, no matter the costs, no matter whether the interests at stake are vital or secondary. Presidents want to be leaders of great causes, and the Libyan mission is certainly a good cause. But the more grandiose the rhetoric and the goals, the broader the military mission. And then the United States takes responsibility for the fate of Libya — a country riven with tribes, lacking strong institutions and a civil society, and destroyed by four decades of Gaddafi’s madness. Do we really want to own this, and largely alone? Is it such a bad idea that others should be involved? One liberal commentator noted ruefully that crowds in Benghazi were chanting “Sarkozy!” and not “Obama!” Apparently it is not enough that Libya is rescued; we must be the rescuers because ultimately this is about us, not them.
Washington is now hoping that a bit more military power will dislodge Gaddafi’s regime. My fingers are crossed. But it would be far more sensible, while hoping for the best, to plan for other likely outcomes. The military operation averted a massacre. Gaddafi can continue to be pressured, quarantined and contained by many means, including helping the Libyan opposition. The Clinton administration recognized in the Balkans that it was unwilling to pay the price that regime change in Serbia would have required. As a result, Slobodan Milosevic survived the actions in Bosnia and Kosovo, which were still regarded as successes, and was later dislodged by his own people. Limited interventions might have limited successes, but they can also avoid catastrophic failures.
This is not macho enough for some. “If you go to take Vienna, take Vienna,” thundered Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. The words are those of Napoleon, an egomaniacal dictator who invaded most of his neighbors and whose thirst for total victory led him to overreach, sacrifice hundreds of thousands of his soldiers, suffer ignominious defeat and end up in exile on an island. If I were Obama, I’d pass on that model.