Libya’s Lessons

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Moammar Gaddafi’s death makes for an interesting punctuation mark in the ever-evolving U.S. approach to war. The key choice: should it be an exclamation point (“We got him! And not a single American died!) or a question mark (“Did we just get lucky? Is this a template for how the U.S. should wage future wars?”).

We shouldn’t over-learn whatever lessons there are to be gleaned by Gaddafi’s demise and the joyful crowds gathering in Tripoli and other Libyan cities. But neither should we be shy about exploring what they might be.

When Operation Odyssey Dawn began seven months ago Wednesday — with the U.S. taking the lead, its B-1 and B-2 bombers attacking Libyan targets from bases inside the U.S. — it marked a humanitarian response to Gaddafi’s threat to kill rebels in the city of Benghazi like “rats”. After two weeks, the U.S. handed off the mission — renamed Operation Unified Protector — to NATO, which, in fits and starts, ground down Gaddafi’s forces.

Finally — after the allies insisted they were not targeting the Libyan strongman — NATO air power apparently played a key role in his capture, wounding and subsequent death Thursday. Alliance warplanes reportedly attacked a convoy in which he was fleeing his hometown of Sirte.

While the campaigns launched by President George W. Bush continue — vigorously in Afghanistan, winding down in Iraq — President Obama seems to have split the difference in Libya.

He moved out only with United Nations approval, and an invitation from the Arab League. He let Europe take the lead, and vowed not to put a single U.S. combat boot on Libyan soil. “It is undeniable that the NATO campaign prevented a massacre and contributed mightily to Gaddafi’s undoing,” said Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the foreign relations committee, “without deploying boots on the ground or suffering a single American fatality.”

Obama’s military efforts in Pakistan, Yemen and Uganda also show a lighter touch than the get-tough approach brandished by Bush in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Part of it, of course, is due to the passage of time; there’s little doubt Obama would have taken down the Taliban inside Afghanistan if he had been in office on September 11, 2001. But that conflict, as well as the troubled Iraq war, have reminded Americans and their leaders once again about the usefulness of military force. It’s good for whacking someone — punishment, vengeance — but far less helpful when it comes to remaking a foreign land.

That realization — if it takes root — has major implications for the future size and shape of the U.S. military. The U.S. armed forces and the government that oversees it are at a crossroads. With budget cuts inevitable, they can choose either to fight to keep everything the U.S. military now has — in terms of materiel, manpower and missions — or they can recalibrate their goals.

The U.S. can continue to field a large, land-based Army (never mind the Marines), and keep it in reserve like a holstered gun. Potential foes — we mean you, Pyongyang — will know we have the wherewithal to deal with them on the ground.

But history offers important clues here: the last land war we cleanly won was the European theater in World War II — nearly 70 years ago. Since then, U.S. victories in land wars  — Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — have been elusive (the first Gulf War lasted less than 100 hours on the ground; air power did all the heavy lifting). So after the exclamation point generated by Gaddafi’s death, the nation is left with a question mark: why keep a big and costly land army hanging around if all it does is encourage the nation to engage in wars it has little chance of winning?