U.S. Military Leery Of Libyan Mission

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USS Mount Whitney -- Any U.S. military action against Libya would be directed from this flagship of the 6th Fleet, now steaming around the central Mediterranean

Poised to attack Libyan targets, the U.S. military is looking toward its NATO — Britain and France — along with its Persian Gulf — Qatar and UAE — allies to do the heavy lifting. This is not a mission the high command of the U.S. military wanted, and — waging two wars already — knows there isn’t a lot of slack to strike the shores of Tripoli.

Sure, there’s plenty of hardware to do whatever orders come down: the carrier USS Enterprise, destroyers Barry, Mason and Stout, amphibs Kearsarge and Ponce, and the attack sub Providence are all hanging around the ‘hood, waiting for orders to strike. The USS Bataan amphibious ready group will deploy to the region next week, ahead of schedule, to bolster the U.S. presence in the Mediterranean Sea.

But the mental acuity and concentration required by war doesn’t lend itself to multiple fights. The U.S. put the war against Japan during World War II on hold until it basically wrapped up things with Germany. Sure, there were manpower and materiel reasons for this FDR-two-step, but there were mental reasons as well. Waging a war is tough and complicated, waging two wars more so (witness how we abandoned the Afghan campaign for five years to invade Iraq). Launching a martial trifecta — even more daunting.

Retired U.S. general Anthony Zinni, who ran U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000 — and who oversaw the UN  withdrawal from Somalia in 1995 — doesn’t like what he sees. “This Administration has been sucked in by the wily Euro-weenies and the Arab League,” the retired Marine four-star said Friday night. “We are the consummate `stuckees’. As Peter, Paul and Mary sang: `When will we learn, when will we learn?'”

Libya’s military is third-rate. While it possesses some 100 MiG warplanes, most can’t fly. Of more concern are its anti-aircraft missiles, including 50 SA-6s. But President Obama – who called for Gaddafi’s ouster Mar. 3, didn’t repeat that call Friday following the passage of a UN resolution calling for “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won herself no friends in uniform Friday when she said “we don’t know what the final outcome will be” in the wake of threatening military action against Gaddafi.

That hardly squares with the military’s preference to use overwhelming force, with a clear objective, with the support of the American people. It’s the so-called “Powell doctrine,” detailed by Colin Powell, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff detailed these guidelines for deploying U.S. military force nearly 20 years ago. “Objectives for which we use `violent’ force can range from hurting an enemy enough so that he or she ceases to do the thing that is endangering our interests (air strikes against Libya in 1986 to prevent further Libyan-sponsored terrorism), to unseating the enemy’s government and altering fundamentally his or her way of life (World War II),” he wrote in Foreign Affairs’ 1992-93 winter issue. “…If our objective is something short of winning—as in our air strikes into Libya in 1986—we should see our objective clearly then achieve it swiftly and efficiently.” No one knows how long this Libyan action might last. The military, like the stock market, abhors uncertainty.

Some in the military were taken aback by Susan Rice’s comments Wednesday night that the U.S. might have to do more than a no-fly zone in Libya. “The U.S. view is that we need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include, but perhaps go beyond, a no-fly zone at this point, as the situation on the ground has evolved, and as a no-fly zone has inherent limitations in terms of protection of civilians at immediate risk,” said Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

There remains concern in the Pentagon that the U.S. has little idea who these rebels are, and whether or not U.S. firepower should be enlisted in their support. There is also distress that despite the support of the Arab League for action against Gaddafi, the two most important Arab states — Egypt and Saudi Arabia — are opposed. It seems that the $1.3 billion we’re investing in Cairo’s military isn’t paying off this time around, nor is the status of the House of Saud as a wholly owned subsidiary of American car owners.

Washington’s flip-flop on the no-fly zone floored some at the Pentagon, who thought that the cold water tossed on the notion by Defense Secretary Robert Gates had prevailed — until they came to work Thursday morning. Apparently, Obama came down firmly on the side of intervention at a two-hour White House meeting Tuesday night with senior national-security advisers, which led to Rice’s public declaration less than 24 hours later.

But there is no clarity on how this situation ends. For now, by declaring a ceasefire, Gaddafi actually seems to be the one in control. That could prove embarrassing. “In the aftermath of the resolution, the U.S. is morally and practically obligated to the survival and viability of the anti-Qaddafi insurgency,” Ray Takeyh, a Middle Eastern expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote Friday. “To stand aloof and indifferent as the Qaddafi clan leaves alone the oasis of Benghazi while molesting other cities and citizens betrays the cause that the UN Security Council seemingly embraced.”

Like cable TV, the military — with its strict hierarchy — best focuses on one thing at a time. There may be multiple commanders, but there’s only one chairman of the Joint Chiefs, one defense secretary, and one commander in chief. When confronted with multiple issues — say an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear ruin in Japan, alongside possible war with Libya, plus growing unrest in Bahrain and Yemen — cable TV tends to focus only on one. Fighting wars is the same way. Snafus often result.

Outsiders often criticize the military for its “tunnel vision” with its focus on accomplishing whatever mission it’s assigned to the detriment of everything else, including additional conflicts. The concern among some in the military today is that Obama’s leap into Libya is little more than “funnel vision,” that may be sucking the U.S. military into North African quicksand.