Mission Creep

The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Image via Wikipedia

Friday’s presidential address has done absolutely nothing to quell my profound misgivings regarding military action in Libya. In fact, it confirmed my suspicion that no one — including the White House — can say with any confidence what it is we’re getting ourselves into. Consider this statement:

I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing. The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya. In the coming weeks, we will continue to help the Libyan people with humanitarian and economic assistance so that they can fulfill their aspirations peacefully.

Protecting civilians is certainly a noble cause. But is it a well-defined goal? Not really. It’s just an admirable sentiment dressed up as a strategic objective. What I want to hear is where the White House thinks this should end: with Gaddafi chastened but still in power? With a democratic Libyan regime? Two states, one controlled by Gaddafi and the other by the rebels? The phrase “fulfill their aspirations” seems to indicate options B or C. But given the current state of affairs, I don’t know how either of those options could be realized “peacefully.”

It gets worse. Though I’m sure the “no ground troops” pledge was made in order to assuage intervention’s critics, it just makes me even more convinced that there’s no coherent strategy at work here. After all, there’s no such thing as a peacekeeping party composed entirely of cruise missiles; protecting civilians requires more than just exploding projectiles. Sure, the obvious response is that America’s pledge not to deploy ground troops only means that the rest of the coalition will cover the gap. But how plausible is it that, really? Britain and France are going to happily dispatch their own infantry while the United States — which, even in its weakened state, has the mightiest armed forces on earth — takes a knee? Beginning with a pledge not to use ground troops is almost worse than the alternative, because it means any eventual deployment will be an escalation of a preexisting conflict. Gradual escalations, remember, are often how quagmires begin.

Even if this conflict never becomes a full-on quagmire, you had better believe that Gaddafi will drag it out for as long as possible. The atrocities he has already committed have likely ruled out any sort of peaceful, Mubarak-style abdication. His only remaining options are prosecution for crimes against humanity (charges the International Criminal Court is already investigating), death, or somehow keeping this going for long enough to break the political will behind the coalition so that he may retain control over some or all of Libya. The lattermost of those possibilities is the by far the most distant, but I suspect he would rather die trying to achieve it than give up and submit to judgment at The Hague.

In other words, this is not a man susceptible to threats or negotiation. That leads me to believe that this can only end either with full-on regime change or a divided Libya. The latter would probably be another regional conflict waiting to happen; I have no idea what the former would be. We know too little about the composition of the resistance movement too make any firm predictions, much less the nuances of Libyan tribal politics. But I do know this: the United States and our coalition allies are making a huge gamble. Nothing about this indicates to me that it is an acceptable one.

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