A hesitant president, a skeptical SecDef and a cautious Air Force chief of staff made a curious trio of warmongers in the days leading up to the United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya, paving the way for a coalition force to start airstrikes March 19.
President Barack Obama stressed that the use of force was not his first choice and that enforcement of a no-fly zone would be led by others in the coalition, and was emphatic that no U.S. troops would be deployed on the ground. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who famously made clear his skepticism of a no-fly zone with his “call a spade a spade” comment, warned there must be a “meaningful coalition, meaning other countries make serious military contributions so the U.S isn’t carrying the pre-eminent responsibility for an indefinite period of time.” And Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that a no-fly zone would not be enough to stop Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces from crushing the rebel forces. With such heavy heart and pessimism did the U.S. enter its newest fight, firing a slew of Tomahawk cruise missiles from two destroyers and three submarines while dispatching combat aircraft to join a force of Belgian, British, French, Canadian, Danish, Italian and Spanish fighter jets, refueling and surveillance aircraft, frigates and submarines.
Given the seeming half-hearted U.S. participation — which nevertheless was primarily responsible for delivering the bombardment’s first waves of heavy fire — the big questions about where Security Council Resolution 1973 could take the U.S. are:
1. What’s the military objective, and was this use of force the last resort?
2. What makes this civil war different from others in which the U.S. has no vital national security interest?
3. Did Obama get bullied into military action for which the U.S. ultimately will end up carrying the can?
4. What is the true level of support for this action by the Arab League, and why is Libya different from Bahrain and Yemen?
5. Is it disingenuous to believe the world can’t handle its small fights without the aid of the U.S.?
6. Is Obama’s caution against declaring U.S. leadership a sign of his reluctance to be the decision-maker or a ploy to ensure this doesn’t look like Iraq circa 2003?
7. Was Schwartz’s question about the usefulness of a no-fly zone a personal viewpoint, or was he voicing reservations of fellow service chiefs about the risks of entering yet another conflict?
8. Can airpower alone achieve the political objective — regime change — without putting allied troops on the ground?
9. Why isn’t targeting Gadhafi an option if this ultimately saves more civilian and allied military lives?
10. What if Gadhafi chooses “Sitzkrieg”?
11. What do developments in Libya mean for U.S. defense planning and for budgeting our increasingly constrained resources?
12. How does this end? The aim of the U.N. resolution, which “authorizes member states to take all necessary means” to protect civilians, is essentially a humanitarian mission wrapped around military action. But the military objective is not clear — it does not explicitly call for the removal of Gadhafi, but it does take the side of the rebels without knowing who they are.
A U.N. resolution is not a strategy, and the U.S. strategy has not been made clear.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy took the lead in calling for a no-fly zone, citing humanitarian necessity. Why Libya is different — on a humanitarian basis — from Bahrain or any other state where human rights are suppressed and civilians killed has not been made clear. How much the Arab League support for the no-fly zone played in the U.S. decision to attack is also unclear, but that support went wobbly almost from the start, with the league condemning the coalition’s initial bombardments as if it hadn’t understood the spade that is the nature of a no-fly zone. Was the urge to improve our reputation in the Middle East a critical factor in Obama’s decision? And while it is understandable that Obama would emphasize that no U.S. troops would set foot in Libya, such a declaration encourages Gadhafi to sit it out. If he does that, it’s uncertain how the coalition will respond.
Another poorly defined objective is the endgame. Firing commenced and the U.S. said its allies would take over the lead in no-fly enforcement within days. How that will play out in reality is another uncertainty. Unknowns are a staple of war, but the U.S. has recent — indeed, current — lessons learned it can draw from. Perhaps the biggest question of all is, will it?