Gen. Wesley Clark says Libya doesn't meet the test for U.S. military action

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By Wesley K. Clark
Friday, March 11, 2011; 8:00 PM

In March of 1974, when I was a young Army captain, I was sitting in a conference on civil-military relations at Brown University. Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) was onstage expounding on the lessons from Vietnam about military interventions. He then stopped and looked right at me and the four West Point cadets at my side. "You, the young officer and cadets sitting there - never in your lifetimes will you see us intervene abroad," I recall him saying. "We've learned that lesson."

For all his brilliance, Aspin couldn't have been more wrong.

We have launched many military interventions since then. And today, as Moammar Gaddafi looks vulnerable and Libya descends into violence, familiar voices are shouting, once again: "Quick, intervene, do something!" It could be a low-cost win for democracy in the region. But before we aid the Libyan rebels or establish a no-fly zone, let's review what we've learned about intervening since we pulled out of Vietnam.

The past 37 years have been replete with U.S. interventions. Some have succeeded, such as our actions in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), the Persian Gulf War (1991) and the Balkans (1995-2000). Some were awful blunders, such as the attempted hostage rescue in Iran (1980), landing the Marines in Lebanon (1982) or the Somalia intervention (1992-94).

Some worked in the short run, but not the longer term - such as the occupation of Haiti in 1994. Others still hang in the balance, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, consuming hundreds of billions of dollars and wrecking thousands of American lives. Along the way, we've bombed a few tyrants such as Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi himself, operated through proxies in Central America, and stood ready with fly-overs, deployments, mobility exercises and sail-bys across the globe.

I've thought about military interventions for a long time - from before my service in Vietnam to writing a master's thesis at Fort Leavenworth to leading NATO forces in the Kosovo war. In considering Libya, I find myself returning to the guidelines for intervention laid out by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in 1984. The world has changed a great deal since then, so I've adapted and updated his vision to develop my own rules for when the United States should deploy its blood and treasure in operations far from home.

Understand the national interests at stake, and decide if the result is worth the cost.

We went into Lebanon with a reinforced battalion of Marines in 1982 because we believed that it was in our national interest to stabilize the situation after the Israelis had been forced out of Beirut. But after the terrorist bombing of their barracks killed 241 U.S. service members the next year, we pulled out. After the tragedy, any benefits seemed to pale in light of the cost and continuing risks.

In 1999, when we launched the NATO air campaign against Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, President Bill Clinton had to state publicly that he didn't intend to use ground troops. He did so in an effort to limit the costs of an initiative that the public and Congress did not consider to be in our nation's vital interest. The administration and I, as the NATO commander in Europe, were in a difficult position, and Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic knew it. But what Milosevic didn't understand was that once we began the strikes - with NATO troops deployed in neighboring countries and the Dayton Peace Agreement to enforce in Bosnia - NATO couldn't afford to lose. And the United States had a vital interest in NATO's success, even if we had a less-than-vital interest in Kosovo.

In 2001, when the United States went into Afghanistan, it was clear that we had to strike back after the attacks of Sept. 11. And we're still there, despite all the ambiguities and difficulties, because we have a vital interest in combating al-Qaeda and similar terrorist groups there and across the border in Pakistan.

How do we apply this test to Libya? Protecting access to oil supplies has become a vital interest, but Libya doesn't sell much oil to the United States, and what has been cut off is apparently being replaced by Saudi production. Other national interests are more complex. Of course, we want to support democratic movements in the region, but we have two such operations already underway - in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there are the humanitarian concerns. It is hard to stand by as innocent people are caught up in violence, but that's what we did when civil wars in Africa killed several million and when fighting in Darfur killed hundreds of thousands. So far, the violence in Libya is not significant in comparison. Maybe we could earn a cheap "victory," but, on whatever basis we intervene, it would become the United States vs. Gaddafi, and we would be committed to fight to his finish. That could entail a substantial ground operation, some casualties and an extended post-conflict peacekeeping presence.

Know your purpose and how the proposed military action will achieve it.

In 1989, when the United States wanted regime change in Panama, a powerful U.S. force took over the country, captured dictator Manuel Noriega and enabled the democratic opposition to form a new government. Panama today is a thriving democracy.

On the other hand, in Somalia in 1992-94, we started out on a humanitarian mission, gradually transitioned to greater use of military power and then had a tragic tactical stumble trying to arrest a warlord. The loss of 18 Americans caused national outrage, and eventually we pulled out. We experienced classic mission creep, without reconsidering the strategy or the means to achieve it.


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