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The Libya Dilemma: The Limits of Air Power

Author: Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
March 25, 2011
Washington Post

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The Libya crisis has given rise to what some now call the Obama doctrine. It has three main elements: First, humanitarian interests warrant U.S. military action. Second, such military action should be strictly limited ó especially, there should be no ground forces committed. Third, military action must be multilateral, with others sharing the burden and taking the lead whenever possible.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It is essentially the same set of ideas underlying the U.S. air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. In fact, the Libyan crisis and the emerging Obama doctrine signal the return of a dilemma that dominated U.S. foreign policy between the fall of the Soviet Union and the Sept. 11 attacks: Elected officials find it hard to ignore events overseas that offend U.S. values or threaten peripheral interests. But they aren't willing to risk serious commitment to deal with them. The result is pressure for intervention on the cheap. Air power seems to offer this, and reliance on others to bear most of the burden makes limited intervention look even better.

The attacks of Sept. 11 changed the subject, and after 2001 this debate was quickly forgotten in the new focus on terrorism, al-Qaeda, and counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the original dilemma remains unresolved, and this debate is returning with more force than ever.

The problem remains that warfare rarely allows big payoffs from small investments. As citizens of a superpower with an array of high-tech, standoff weaponry, Americans often assume they can impose their will on aggressors from a safe distance with limited sacrifice. As leaders of the free world, Americans often assume they can lead others who share their ideals to share the load, too, containing the cost of action. But this unwillingness to commit undermines real leverage. Locals with existential stakes often prove more stubborn than distant Americans expect, and even high-tech firepower has serious limitations against low-tech but determined enemies who control the people on the ground through close-up violence.

This script is playing out again in Libya. Western air power can easily annihilate Moammar Gaddafi's modest air force and prevent him from using massed armor and artillery in the open. But once the dictator's forces move into populated areas and resort to fighting among the civilian population, the utility of air power diminishes rapidly. Especially when the multilateral action is based on protecting civilians, rather than defeating one side, a dictator willing to mix ruthless fighters with innocent noncombatants poses serious challenges to limited applications of precision air power.

The result could easily be a drawn-out, grinding stalemate. Libyan geography makes this more likely than usual: Vast expanses of open desert separate its urban centers, making it difficult for either side to move force over a distance and use it to take and hold enemy territory far from one's base. Gaddafi has the transport but cannot safely move logistical convoys over miles of exposed roadways with coalition aircraft overhead. The rebels are safe from air attack but lack the organization, equipment or logistical capacity to project such power themselves over such distances. This could produce a deadlock in which neither side can prevail ó but where the West is committed to flying apparently endless, apparently fruitless sorties while Gaddafi crushes any remaining opposition in the cities he controls and the rebels cry out for assistance from their sanctuaries.

In this scenario, the West will ultimately confront the same dilemmas that arose before Sept. 11. How long can Western leaders continue an apparently indecisive air campaign in the face of pleas for escalation from allies on the ground? In Kosovo, NATO was on the verge of a divisive debate over escalating to a ground invasion when Slobodan Milosevic delivered the alliance from its crisis by folding unexpectedly. Will Gaddafi stand fast longer? If so, what then? Nothing in the ostensibly new Obama doctrine offers an escape from this underlying issue. Multilateral burden-sharing might make a stalemate look cheaper, but it cannot transform a stalemate into painless victory.

And we had better get used to this. Libya may present the first time in a while that we've revisited this dilemma, but it won't be the last. Humanitarian crises, terrorist havens, regional aggression and instability are common features of the modern international system. Their salience for U.S. foreign policy has been concealed for a time by the aftermath of Sept. 11 in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are reemerging. Whether guided by the Obama doctrine or some successor, the United States is headed back to the debates of the 1990s.

The writer is Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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