American presidents are better at starting wars than ending them. In Libya, the Obama administration may prove the rule once again — in a particularly egregious way.
The central strategic challenge of any war is how to use military means to achieve political ends. The failure to think clearly about this challenge is the main reason America's leaders have had so much trouble closing out military conflicts smoothly and effectively in the past. Trapped in a fog of war, they have stumbled across the finish line without a clear sense of where they were going or how they advanced American interests amid all the chaos.
Past U.S. wars offer straightforward guideposts for success. First, set out a vision of a stable postwar political situation and develop a plan that gets you there. Second, define your goals precisely — avoiding cheap talk, simplistic analogies, and abstract concepts such as “victory” or “democracy” — and frame your political objectives in terms of what specifically will happen on the ground once military operations are finished. Finally, prepare at least rudimentary backup plans for what to do if things go better, worse or differently than expected.
If this sounds like common sense, that's because it is. But in war, as in life, common sense is quite uncommon. Presidents have violated each of these “best practices” in every American war over the past century — and sometimes several of them in a single conflict.
Woodrow Wilson fought World War I to make the world “safe for democracy,” but he never asked himself what democracy actually meant and whether, say, a constitutional monarchy in Germany would fit the bill. Franklin Roosevelt's administration never considered what would happen to its postwar arrangements if its alliance with the Soviet Union fell apart. Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, made voluntary prisoner repatriation (the offer of asylum to enemy prisoners of war in U.N. hands) a key war aim in Korea but never asked themselves whether such a demand would block an armistice — which it did for almost a year and a half. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations dug themselves deeper and deeper into Vietnam without any strategy for victory or withdrawal.
George H.W. Bush assumed that Saddam Hussein would fall as a result of defeat in the Persian Gulf War but thought little about what to do if he did not. And George W. Bush made sure that Hussein's regime toppled but paid scant attention to what might follow.
Now, in the first war — or “kinetic military action” — that President Obama can truly call his own, his administration seems determined to best its predecessors by violating all of the maxims simultaneously.
In Libya, instead of starting with the desired end state and working back to develop a strategy for achieving it, the administration has launched the United States into battle with no clear vision of what a successful and stable outcome looks like. Instead of defining postwar goals precisely and matching means to ends, different officials have set out a range of objectives, from narrow (protecting civilians) to broad (ousting Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi), even as they have announced severe restrictions on the military measures being considered to achieve them (no ground troops and no lengthy U.S. involvement). And if there has been any contingency planning for what happens should Gaddafi not fold or fall quickly, it is the only U.S. diplomatic secret yet to be leaked.
The Obama administration's efforts to gain international authorization of the operation have been deft. But procedural triumphs such as Security Council Resolution 1973, the approval of the Arab League or a transfer of responsibility for the no-fly zone to NATO will be of little cheer once the mission's substantive flaws come to the fore. Failure, after all, is usually an orphan.
Administration officials and their supporters counter that such criticisms don't apply to this operation, because it is not a war, but a “time-limited, scope-limited military action,” in the words of White House spokesman Jay Carney. Conventional strategic reasoning is irrelevant to Operation Odyssey Dawn, the argument runs, because the operation's official goal is narrow and pure: the protection of innocent civilians from Gaddafi's threatened reprisals.
Letting events play out would indeed have yielded some sort of tragedy (although almost surely not the “massacre” of “100,000 people,” as National Security Council staffer Dennis Ross has claimed). But the humanitarian issue emerged only because of a prior and larger political issue. The rebels are at risk of retaliation by Gaddafi because they rose up against his regime and were unable to topple it on their own. His opponents will be at risk so long as Gaddafi remains in power.
The true question at hand, therefore, is who will rule Libya? Whatever the Obama administration may be telling itself, by intervening to help one side in a civil war, it is now embroiled in Libya's political future to a vastly greater extent than it was two weeks ago.
The administration insists that, in the final analysis, it will have provided only some small and brief help in launching the operation, and that it will be able to hand off the Libya mission to other coalition members. Soon, we are assured, they will be the ones setting policy, executing it and bearing the accountability for whatever follows. “In some ways, how it turns out is not on our shoulders,” an administration official told the New York Times on Thursday.
If only it were that simple. In insisting that it is only a little bit pregnant — or that it will not be, or be held to be, responsible for supporting its offspring — the administration is kidding itself (or us). If France, Britain or the Arab League could conduct lengthy, complex military operations or major nation-building efforts by themselves, they would do so. Then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's 1998 comment about the United States being “the indispensable nation” was not a boast but a statement of fact, one that has become more accurate in the years since.
Absent a significant escalation in the scale or duration of U.S. involvement, four possible outcomes lie ahead for Libya. Washington and its allies could get lucky and see Gaddafi's support collapse quickly, with a relatively quick transition to some better regime taking place under the supervision of a broad international coalition. Unfortunately, this best-case scenario is the least likely — for reasons including Gaddafi's zeal for power, the absence of strong institutions in Libya and probable divisions within the Libyan opposition.
Three far worse outcomes are more likely: a humiliating Western climb-down from the goals of civilian protection or regime change; a military stalemate and a de facto partition of the country between east and west, with outside forces garrisoning a rump mini-state until the situation changes; or post-Gaddafi political turmoil, with Libya at risk of becoming a failed state.
“No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it,” noted the 19th-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. Bringing a war to a successful close, he said, requires a “thorough grasp of national policy.” Unfortunately, at this point, such a policy is precisely what the Obama administration seems to lack.
This is why its first order of business now should be to settle on an actual goal for Libya's future order. It must decide, for example, whether Gaddafi will be allowed to stay in power under any circumstances — and if not, what local political and security arrangements will follow his departure, and who will maintain them and how. The president's address to the nation on Monday night would be an ideal opportunity to lay out such a policy publicly. But regardless of whether he does so then, the challenge will remain. Only once he establishes a target will Obama be able to aim properly and hope to finish well what he started so badly.
Gideon Rose is the editor of Foreign Affairs and the author of “How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle.” He served on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration.
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