Facing a brutal Arab dictator who wouldn’t budge, the president declared: “The best way to address that threat” is through a new government “that is committed to represent and respect its people, not repress them.”
Those were not the words of President Obama this past week, though he has repeatedly said that Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi must go. Instead, that was a statement that President Bill Clinton made in 1998, when he openly embraced the goal of removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power.
In the years between the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the start of its successor in 2003, the United States and its allies set up no-fly and no-drive zones for Iraq, imposed economic sanctions, bombed Iraqi military forces and otherwise engaged in actions that look a lot like the limited war the Obama administration is helping wage against Gaddafi’s regime today.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the debacle that followed make this interwar period seem a distant curiosity. But it was the frustrations and failures of those efforts that set the stage for the eventual decision to invade. Remembering the failures of the 1990s can help the Obama administration avoid similarly disastrous decisions in Libya — in the midst of an operation that, as it endures, can become unpopular at home, lose support abroad and require constant political energy to maintain.
After the Gulf War ended in 1991, Hussein began massacring Iraqi Kurds and Shiites who, with U.S. encouragement, had risen up against him. As in Libya, the massacres were blamed in part on the Iraqi leader’s air superiority, including helicopters. To counter this, and to send a message that the world would not stand idly by, the United States and its allies enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. Hussein pulled back in the north but continued to slaughter Iraqi Shiites, leading to the creation in 1992 of a similar no-fly zone in southern Iraq. In 1994, concerned about Iraqi military aggression against Kuwait, the United States established a no-drive zone in southern Iraq. During this time, the United States also bombed Iraq’s air defenses that threatened patrolling allied aircraft, hoping to shake its foundations and topple its dictator.
No one imagined that Hussein would still be in charge a decade after the no-fly zone began. He seemed sure to fall in 1991, after the Gulf War humiliated him and defeated his armies. But in the 1990s he survived coup attempts, tribal revolts and religious opposition. The Iraqi dictator, like other successful tyrants, did one thing well — secure his power.
The initial push for a no-fly zone over Libya appeared to be based on hope that the dictator there would fall soon. Gaddafi’s grip on power, like Hussein’s in 1991, is tenuous, but he appears to have stopped the waves of defections and is now consolidating his position. Or, as he so eloquently put it, “I am here, I am here, I am here.”
He is there, and his purges in Tripoli will continue, even if his efforts against the Benghazi-based opposition falter in the face of international attacks. His cash hoards and brutal security services will be used together to ensure loyalty, particularly among his military forces and key tribal allies. All this makes a coup or revolt less likely to succeed. The hope that the intervention would last for days, not weeks or months, will be tested.
As the Iraqi dictator dug in, the alliance began to weaken. Regional partners cared little about the fate of Iraq’s Kurdish and Shiite populations. Some even preferred that Hussein consolidate his hold on power rather than risk fracturing the country. The United States sought to continue, and at times increase, pressure on the dictator, particularly after he threw out U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998. Other allies favored leniency, and France eventually ended its military efforts. Russia and China sought to weaken sanctions, requiring constant efforts by U.S. leaders to bully or placate them. Arab allies squirmed, privately wanting Hussein to fall or at least stay in his box, but becoming concerned as their people came to see the U.S.-led effort as brutal and imperialistic. Osama bin Laden exploited this anger, repeatedly citing supposed U.S. aggression against the Iraqi people as proof of America’s evil intentions.
The U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya calls for ending the violence there and protecting civilians. Obama, however, has declared that “it is U.S. policy that Gaddafi needs to go.” That is a much more ambitious goal that many allies do not share. Already China, Russia and Brazil have called for a cease-fire. Some Arab leaders are decrying airstrikes on targets in Gaddafi-controlled areas, claiming they signed up simply to defend the opposition, not to attack Gaddafi’s forces.
The good news is that the Obama administration is handing off command of Operation Odyssey Dawn to NATO. That’s also the bad news. With allies in charge, the United States will not be the public face of bombing runs that may grow increasingly unpopular. The allies, however, show little inclination or ability to lead in a tight spot. In one of the first meetings of European powers to discuss the new arrangements, French and German representatives walked out halfway through. Getting the allies to decide on ultimate political objectives, shared rules of engagement and other tough issues will require constant cajoling by Washington. The United States may end up leading despite a formal command change.
Hussein, hardly the world’s cleverest leader, eventually figured out both U.S. rules of engagement and the political and diplomatic dynamics of his enemies. Gaddafi may vie with Hussein in his delusions of grandeur (Tripoli probably has as many billboards of Gaddafi as Baghdad did of Hussein) and ignorance of international politics, but he too may eventually recognize the weaknesses of his foes. His loyalists may try to use paramilitary forces disguised as civilians, put human shields around air defense systems, put hospitals in armories, infiltrate assassins into opposition-controlled territory to kill leaders there, or otherwise exploit allied squeamishness and divisions.
Opposition infighting will not stop now that the Western allies have stepped in. Hussein committed genocidal-level violence against Iraq’s Kurdish population. In 1996, however, rivalries between Kurdish factions led one to invite Iran to intervene, prompting its rival to invite Iraqi forces into the Kurdish safe haven; only the threat of increased U.S. intervention led to their departure. In Libya, one of the dispiriting developments is the lack of a clear and unified opposition. The Libyan National Council claims to be a provisional government, but its authority and ability to impose its will on the parts of the nation under opposition control are dubious. Also uncertain is its respect for human rights. Abdul Fattah Younis, a former interior minister whose work included suppressing dissent, now directs opposition military operations, hardly a promising sign.
In the United States, political will for the mission in Libya is likely to be limited. The Gulf War led to the vilification of Hussein, which helped Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton sustain popular support for subsequent operations. But as the fighting faded from Americans’ political consciousness, U.S. leaders sought to keep the no-fly zones and other anti-Hussein efforts low-cost. Minimizing any risk of casualties was particularly important. Inevitably, some occurred anyway, such as a tragic friendly-fire accident in 1994 when U.S. fighter planes downed two Black Hawk helicopters in northern Iraq, killing 26. Military operations were often cautious, and leaders avoided missions that would endanger troops.
Protecting civilians, however, often requires getting your hands dirty. From the air, it’s almost impossible to shield civilians in areas controlled by a dictator. Although the United States placed no-fly and no-drive restrictions on parts of southern Iraq, Hussein still brutally repressed the country’s Shiites.
This creates a further political problem: If civilians are still dying, political leaders face demands to either abandon the effort as futile — or to escalate. So seeking an end to Gaddafi’s regime makes sense if you want to help Libyans, but it also ups the stakes and complicates the diplomacy. In 1998, Clinton embraced regime change as well as containment. Hussein’s continued survival and the suffering of the Iraqi people, however, made a mockery of that ambition, helping President George W. Bush make the case for war in 2003. By then, even voices less eager for war admitted that more than a decade of no-fly and no-drive zones, sanctions, and occasional bombing runs had left Hussein entrenched in power, with no end in sight.
The problems that ensued after ousting one dictator make us unlikely to take that kind of action again. Chastened by the disaster in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, the United States is cautious about becoming involved in another ground war in the Middle East. At least, any U.S. leader who isn’t cautious in that regard should “have his head examined,” as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month, paraphrasing Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
But retreating or otherwise letting Gaddafi survive would be humiliating and allow the Libyan dictator to wreak a bloody revenge. We should continue to hope that Gaddafi will fall and help us avoid this dilemma, but in the meantime we should prepare for the many problems that lie ahead, on a road we have traveled before.
Daniel Byman is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and the research director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the forthcoming “A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.”