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

In Libya, if the objective is humanitarian, then we would work with both sides and not get engaged in the matter of who wins. Just deliver relief supplies, treat the injured and let the Libyans settle it. But if we want to get rid of Gaddafi, a no-fly zone is unlikely to be sufficient - it is a slick way to slide down the slope to deeper intervention.

Determine the political endgame before intervening.

In Haiti in 1994, it was a matter of getting rid of the military junta that had forced out the democratically elected president and restoring a democratic government. We prepared and threatened an invasion, we used it as leverage in negotiations, and within four weeks of its start, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was back in power.

But in Iraq in 2003, we failed to chart a clear path to democracy before taking action. So after we toppled Hussein, we lacked a ready alternative. Eight years later we've come a long way, but at a very high price.

In Libya, we don't know who the rebels really are or how a legitimate government would be formed if Gaddafi were pushed out. Perhaps we will have a better sense when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with rebel leaders, as she is scheduled to do this coming week. In a best-case scenario, there would be a constitutional convention, voter lists, political parties and internationally supervised free and fair elections. But there could also be a violent scramble for authority in which the most organized, secretive and vicious elements take over. We are not well-equipped to handle that kind of struggle. And once we intervene, Libya's problems would become our responsibility.

Get U.S. public support, obtain diplomatic and legal authority, and get allies engaged.

Offensive war is, in general, illegal. In the Persian Gulf War, Iraq's actions in 1990 were a clear case of aggression; we obtained full U.N. support. We had a congressional resolution. And we enjoyed the overwhelming backing of our allies and Arab partners. They even paid most of the cost of Operation Desert Storm, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. The resulting military action was widely hailed as a legitimate and moral victory.

In 1999 in Kosovo, the United States and NATO had a humanitarian U.N. resolution backing our actions. The American public was mostly unengaged, but NATO was able to wield its diplomatic power and the incremental use of force to compel Milosevic's surrender. (The coup de grace was his indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia.)

By contrast, going it alone, without substantial international legal and diplomatic support, is a recipe for trouble. Our haste and clumsiness going into Iraq in 2003 - without a compelling reason to intervene, in my view - has cost us dearly.

In Libya, Gaddafi has used and supported terrorism, murdered Americans and repressed his people for 40 years. The American public may want to see him go. But his current actions aren't an attack on the United States or any other country. On what basis would we seek congressional support and international authorization to intervene in a civil war? Do we have the endorsement of the Arab League? A U.N. Security Council resolution?

Avoid U.S. and civilian casualties.

In Kosovo, NATO had the upper hand from the outset. We weren't losing aircraft (we lost only two in combat out of 36,000 sorties flown over 78 days); we never lost a soldier or airman in combat; and because we minimized innocent civilian casualties and the destruction of nonmilitary property, we maintained our moral authority.

But once Americans start dying, public tolerance for military action wanes sharply. We've seen it time and again, from the aborted attempt to rescue our hostages in Iran in 1980 to Afghanistan today. Intervening successfully isn't so much a matter of how many troops and planes you use, it's about mustering decisive power - military, diplomatic, legal, economic, moral - while avoiding the casualties and collateral damage that discredit the mission.

A no-fly zone in Libya may seem straightforward at first, but if Gaddafi continues to advance, the time will come for airstrikes, extended bombing and ground troops - a stretch for an already overcommitted force. A few unfortunate incidents can quash public support.

Once you decide to do it, get it over with.

Use decisive force - military, economic, diplomatic and legal. The longer an operation takes, the more can go wrong. In 1983, we went in with overwhelming force against an attempted communist takeover in Grenada. With 20,000 U.S. troops against 600 Cuban military engineers and some ill-trained locals, it was over in three days. The Cubans were out, the American students who had been held hostage were freed and casualties were minimal. Grenada transitioned to democracy.

The operation in Panama lasted about three weeks; the ground fight in the Gulf War only 100 hours. We pushed the limit in Kosovo with a 78-day air campaign, but fortunately, Milosevic ran out of options before NATO had to commit to planning an invasion.

Given these rules, what is the wisest course of action in Libya? To me, it seems we have no clear basis for action. Whatever resources we dedicate for a no-fly zone would probably be too little, too late. We would once again be committing our military to force regime change in a Muslim land, even though we can't quite bring ourselves to say it. So let's recognize that the basic requirements for successful intervention simply don't exist, at least not yet: We don't have a clearly stated objective, legal authority, committed international support or adequate on-the-scene military capabilities, and Libya's politics hardly foreshadow a clear outcome.

We should have learned these lessons from our long history of intervention. We don't need Libya to offer us a refresher course in past mistakes.

Wesley K. Clark, a retired Army general and NATO's former supreme allied commander in Europe, is a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California at Los Angeles. He will be online to chat on Monday, March 14, at 11: 30 a.m. Submit your questions or comments now.

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