President Obama's Libya War Challenges

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President Obama speaks in Chile on March 21, 2011 —White House

The Libya war is going just swimmingly, militarily. Unfortunately, it’s more of a political war than a military one. If military might were the sole arbiter of the outcome, any alliance led by the U.S. would triumph. No one comes close to matching our military strength. But as we have learned after a decade in Afghanistan, firepower is rarely a key to victory.

So three days into Operation Odyssey Dawn, the U.S. military wins the Oscar for Best Actor, the Brits get the nod for Best Supporting Actor, and every other member of the alliance is a bit player (sorry, France) in this theater of war. Qatar’s four French-built Mirage jets — which its pilots plan to fly alongside France’s — are cited as evidence of Arab backing for the campaign, with additional Arab players to be named later. The Arab League is suddenly restless, and grumbling from China and Russia is on the rise.

The bitter partisanship that has characterized Capitol Hill for the past two decades cuts a President no slack beyond the water’s edge — especially when it comes to declaring war, which is a power vested firmly, and solely, in Congress (according to that pesky Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution). Congress has been “sort of on autopilot for almost 10 years now, in terms of presidential authority, in conducting these types of military operations absent the meaningful participation of the Congress,” Senator James Webb, a Virginia Democrat and former Navy Secretary and Marine, complained on Monday on MSNBC.

An AV-8B readies for war aboard the U.S.S. Kearsarge —U.S. Department of Defense

It’s an especially lousy time to start a war in the Muslim world. After decades of supporting autocrats who guaranteed the U.S. stability — and stable oil prices — change is sweeping the region. Bad guys, like Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, are being caught in the riptide, as are our guys: see King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in Bahrain and President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. Our allies are killing their people, perhaps with weapons and training provided by U.S. taxpayers. On Monday in Chile, President Obama embraced the military action he ordered in Libya and added, “Across the region, we believe that the legitimate aspirations of people must be met and that violence against civilians is not the answer.” Bahrain and Yemen didn’t come up.

U.S. military leaders from Defense Secretary Robert Gates (“I think we’ve made good progress”) to Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (“The initial operations have been very effective”) to the Army general in charge of the campaign, Carter Ham (“Our actions, to date, are generally achieving the intended objective”), are unanimous in their declaration of so far, so good.

So it’s up to Obama to draw to an inside straight (or insert your favorite gambling metaphor here). All wars are rolls of the dice, to be sure, but sometimes you get a better hand than what Obama self-dealt. Because even if the U.S. military and its window-dressing allies (132 cruise missiles have been fired into Libya; the U.S. now leads Britain, 124 to 8, in that category) do everything right, the outcome is beyond their control.

Here are the challenges going forward:

• Protecting Libyan civilians without taking out Gaddafi will be tough. The U.S. finds itself in a box of its own making. It wanted international support to protect civilians and to get rid of Gaddafi but could win U.N. approval only for the former. That came after two weeks of foot dragging, which allowed Gaddafi to regain momentum on the battlefield and retake ground won by the rebels. Multiple officials have declared — perhaps a little too declaratively — that killing Gaddafi or forcing him out of power isn’t on their formal, U.N.-approved to-do list. But it’s certainly high on their informal desirable-outcome roster.

And while it’s relatively easy for allied warplanes to destroy tanks and armored personnel carriers as they move along routes from city to city, they really can’t do that once the vehicles are in urban areas. “The identification and the distinction of forces in very close quarters is a particular challenge for us,” Ham said on Monday.

• The U.S. is in a rush to hand off the day-to-day leadership of the operation. But once Gaddafi’s air-defense network is bombed into rubble — and the U.S. hands over control to Britain, France or some combination of allies — stalemate is a real possibility. Gaddafi could become holed up in Tripoli, with the rebels in charge in Benghazi. Allied warplanes overhead would keep Gaddafi’s forces from retaking Benghazi, while the rebels’ lack of training and weapons would keep them from taking Tripoli. Such a standoff could persist for years.

“There’s going to be a transition taking place in which we are one of the partners among many who are going to ensure that that no-fly zone is enforced,” Obama said, placing the U.S. alongside lesser states. Unfortunately, any alliance in which the U.S. plays a role is inescapably a U.S.-led alliance. Call it the superpower tax.

• This is Obama’s first war. He was in on the takeoff, and he will be held responsible for a smooth landing. That is unlikely to happen so long as Gaddafi remains in power, even if his realm is only greater Tripoli. There’s a reason “Cut off the head of the snake” is a popular refrain in bad neighborhoods.

Obama noted on Monday that “it is U.S. policy that Gaddafi needs to go.” But then he made the eyebrow-raising comment that his ability to order the U.S. military to force Gaddafi from power was trumped by the U.N. resolution that limits military forces to protecting Libyan civilians. “We are going to make sure that we stick to that mandate,” he said.

But, he stressed, the U.S. has other tools in its holster. “We were very rapid in initiating unilateral sanctions and then helping to mobilize international sanctions against the Gaddafi regime,” Obama said. “We froze assets that Gaddafi might have used to further empower himself and purchase weapons or hire mercenaries that might be directed against the Libyan people.” The U.S. has imposed such punishments against Cuba, Iran and North Korea for decades with scant effect.