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Obama's Step Forward on Libya

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
July 19, 2011
Wall Street Journal

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It took nearly four months, but last week the Obama administration finally did the right thing: It recognized the National Transitional Council as the rightful government of Libya. That will allow the rebels to tap into billions of dollars in frozen Libyan government accounts in the U.S. Access to those funds is crucial not only for furthering the campaign to topple Moammar Gadhafi, but also for constructing a working government in Benghazi that can eventually be expanded to the rest of the country.

Yet the question remains: What took so long? Some two dozen countries--ranging from France to Qatar--had already extended diplomatic recognition to the rebels by the time that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. was joining their ranks. Unfortunately, this tardiness is symptomatic of the administration's conduct of the entire war effort and exemplifies President Obama's puzzling "lead from behind" doctrine.

The administration, recall, did not agree to take military action until March 17, more than a month after the rebellion against Gadhafi had begun. For weeks rebel representatives had been pleading for Western help in the form of a "no-fly zone" to stop murderous attacks by Gadhafi's aircraft. Mr. Obama ignored those entreaties, allowing Gadhafi to regain his footing. Only when the revolt was in danger of being extinguished--with the Libyan army poised on the outskirts of Benghazi--did Mr. Obama finally support Britain and France in calling for action at the United Nations.

The U.N. Security Council passed an open-ended resolution allowing member states to take "all necessary measures . . . to protect civilians" and "to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people." The only step that was forbidden was the dispatch of "a foreign occupation force." Mr. Obama could easily have interpreted Resolution 1973 as a blank check for Gadhafi's removal--something he has called for repeatedly. Instead he has insisted on the narrowest possible interpretation, with the U.S. military playing the smallest possible role in its implementation.

Many snorted in disbelief when Mr. Obama later claimed that American action in Libya does not meet the definition of "hostilities" in the War Powers Act--and hence does not have to be authorized by Congress. But this is such a minimalist war effort that one can almost see the president's point.

Seventy-eight days into the war, in mid-June, the Financial Times published a telling comparison between the aerial campaign in Libya and the one in Kosovo in 1999. The earlier war was hardly "Apocalypse Now"--it was tightly limited in its own right. But after 78 days in Kosovo, NATO allies had committed 1,100 aircraft and flown 38,004 sorties. By contrast, in Libya NATO had sent just 250 aircraft and flown 11,107 sorties. Not coincidentally, after 78 days Slobodan Milosevic decided to relinquish Kosovo, whereas even after 124 days--and counting--Gadhafi continues to cling to power.

With the president of the U.S. having called for Gadhafi's ouster, our failure to deliver is making us look ineffectual. It discourages democrats across the Middle East and encourages tyrants. And it raises the prospect that the coalition may splinter. Already Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has said he is against this operation, which cannot function without the bases provided by his country. Meanwhile, Britain and France are running low on munitions, and other allies are pulling back.

The Obama administration can plausibly reply that Gadhafi's power is being undermined. But the process is agonizingly slow--and the longer it goes on, the greater the danger of Libyan arms stockpiles (including portable anti-aircraft missiles) falling into the hands of terrorists. There is also a danger of the country being permanently divided into two, or being plunged into long-term civil war as divisions harden between pro- and anti-government tribes.

None of this is an excuse to try to cut off funding for the war effort, as a coalition of ultra-right-wing and ultra-left-wing lawmakers are trying to do. Instead, Congress should follow the lead of Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) and urge the administration to step up our efforts to bring the war to a swift and satisfactory conclusion. This would principally involve committing more U.S. aircraft to strike missions, including ground-attack aircraft such as the AC-130 and A-10, which our allies do not have. We should also send Special Operations Forces--if we haven't already--to better coordinate air strikes and train rebel forces. And we should provide arms to the rebels, something that the French government has admitted doing.

But--and this is a message that no one in Washington wants to hear--we must not limit our war aims to simply toppling Gadhafi. We made that mistake in Iraq and Afghanistan. By not paying attention to what comes after the deposal of a dictator, we inadvertently created conditions for a long-term insurgency. In Libya it is imperative that the U.S. and our allies make plans now to insert a stabilization force after Gadhafi's downfall to help the National Transitional Council gain control of the country.

Needless to say, no one wants to see U.S. troops in another ground war--especially at a time of shrinking budgets and declining force size. The bulk of any such force in Libya should be provided by the Europeans since Libya is on their doorstep. But we can't simply wash our hands of the place. The sooner we defeat Gadhafi's forces and stabilize the country, the sooner we can achieve our objectives.

Mr. Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is completing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

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

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