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U.S. Military Intervention for Libya?

Discussants: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, and Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
Updated: March 18, 2011


With troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi pushing back rebel forces that had taken control of several cities, there's increasing urgency to the question of whether the United States and its allies should intervene beyond sanctions on the Qaddafi regime. Specifically, the question of imposing a no-fly zone has sparked debate both in Washington and within the UN Security Council. In this exchange and for the next week, CFR fellows Elliott Abrams and Micah Zenko debate the question of whether or not the United States should intervene militarily in Libya.

Picture of Micah Zenko March 18, 2011

Micah Zenko

Those who support invading Libya share a maximalist objective (regime change), via minimalist tactics (no-fly zone and limited airstrikes).

On the eve of NATO's air war against Serbia, which aimed to compel Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to cede sovereignty over Kosovo, President Bill Clinton promised, "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war."

Like Clinton and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who declared that "only the threat of use of force can stop Qaddafi," Elliott believes pre-announced limits are preferable, hoping the "mere announcement of a no-fly zone" will change Qaddafi's calculations.

Unfortunately, the no-fly zones over Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq demonstrate that this tactic--threatened or enforced--neither protects civilians nor compels dictators to abandon power.

I quote at length Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie:

The ultimate determinant in war is a man on the scene with a gun. This man is the final power in war. He is control, he determines who wins. There are those who would dispute this as an absolute, but it is my belief that while other means may critically influence war today, after whatever devastation and destruction may be inflicted on an enemy, if the strategist is forced to strive for final and ultimate control, he must establish, or must present as an inevitable prospect, a man on the scene with a gun.

Of course, outside countries will not deploy ground troops to Libya, and the outgunned rebels appear incapable at marching on Tripoli to topple Qaddafi.

Beyond Libya, Elliott also raises the need for intervention because of international signaling; i.e., if President Obama doesn't authorize an intervention in Libya, Tehran will not be threatened by U.S. ability to attack its nuclear weapons program.

By that logic, the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq should have compelled Tehran to give up its nuclear program already. Of course, the manner in which those invasions unfurled only reinforced Tehran's pursuit of a nuclear deterrent, and strengthened Iran's influence in the Middle East against its greatly weakened neighbors.

Finally, I share Elliott's concern about the potential for large-scale civilian casualties in the Libyan civil war. However, if the United States preemptively intervened in Libya because there might be a mass atrocity, it incentivizes rebel groups to instigate attacks that would more likely lead to one. This is precisely the kind of international signaling the United States must avoid.

Should civilians be killed in large numbers in Libya, the political will and rapidly deployable forces to intervene on the ground to stop it will be required. For how rapidly deployable forces can be used to prevent genocide or mass atrocity, I offer my article from seven years ago.

Elliott Abrams March 16, 2011

Elliott Abrams

Micah and I disagree on several points. One of the significant ones is how much effort it would take to help the opposition defeat Qaddafi. The latter have done remarkably well for a couple of weeks, in part because Libya's military is not very impressive. Over this period, it has finally begun to defeat the rebels, because they lack the tanks and jets Qaddafi has. I believe that the mere announcement of a no-fly zone, or one test of it by a Qaddafi jet, would end his use of air power. Moreover, it would change the morale of the Qaddafi and opposition forces and create very different calculations as to who would win in the end.

I worry about the situation we will leave behind should we not act. The Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council have now requested and supported action, as have some of our closest NATO allies who would join us in it. President Obama has said that Qaddafi must go and repeatedly stated that we have an interest in his defeat. Should we fail to act here, against as weak and antiquated a force as Qaddafi's, one wonders when the president would initiate action. That question will be of some interest to the Iranian regime, where--as in Libya--it is official U.S. policy that "all options are on the table." Any remotely credible threat against the Iranian nuclear weapons program would be undermined if not destroyed by inaction in Libya.

Finally, it seems logical to expect great bloodshed in Benghazi if Qaddafi were to retake it, and to expect very large refugee flows into Egypt. I suppose we all agree we should help care for those refugees. But how much blood would have to flow before President Obama, and Micah, would say "enough--I won't see another Darfur or Rwanda on my watch." Then we'd be intervening after too many were dead and when Qaddafi had already won. It's the worst possible outcome. Far better to give the opposition the limited assistance it needs now, and for which we now have the full support of the Arab states.

Picture of Micah Zenko March 15, 2011

Micah Zenko

A short, though important, semantic counter to Elliott's prior post. While there are many ways to define one, a military invasion that attempts to unseat the political authority of a sovereign territory--as was the immediate impact in Grenada and Panama--is a war.

To further selectively quote from President Obama's March 11 press conference, when he was asked twice the question everyone wanted answered:

Q: You had said that you want to see Qaddafi leave power, leave office. Are you prepared to use any means necessary in the United States government to make that happen? And if not, why not?

The President: I have not taken any options off the table at this point.

Q: You say you're concerned, but is Qaddafi staying? Is that an acceptable option for you, ever?

The President: I think what you're asking is are we going to do--engage in any potential military action to make that happen. And as I've said before, when it comes to U.S. military actions, whether it's a no-fly zone or other options, you've got to balance costs versus benefits. And I don't take those decisions lightly.

Once again, there was no commitment from the president to do what could ultimately be required to assure Qadaffi is removed from power: intervene with U.S. military forces.

I agree that as things stand, the Qadaffi regime will maintain power via this civil war. As one fighter noted (NYT): "There's no comparison between our weapons and theirs. They're trained, they're organized . . . even if we had weapons, we wouldn't even know how to use them." A former officer who defected to the rebels noted (Economist): "Our tanks and artillery are derelict. They were kept simply for national pageants." Another warned (NYT) flatly: "This isn't an army."

This massive disparity between a well-armed military and an underequipped, voluntary rebel force makes it unlikely that it will only require, as Elliott wrote, "a small amount of effort to ensure that Qaddafi is defeated."

Whether it is a question of imposing (or even just announcing, as some suggest) a no-fly zone, cratering runways, or launching limited airstrikes, nearly everyone endorsing a military intervention in Libya on behalf of the rebels has placed a preordained ceiling on what level commitment will be permitted. Senator John Kerry already decided (WashPost) that "the one option that should not be on the table is American ground troops," while French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced (WSJ) his opposition to an undefined "massive military intervention in Libya."

But, of course, if President Obama commits the United States to removing Qaddafi from power, he must be prepared to go all the way to see it through. And have a plausible explanation for what follows.

Elliott Abrams March 14, 2011

Elliott Abrams

First, I would like to insist that there's a difference between wars--including wars of choice--and military intervention. The United States has intervened militarily in many ways and in many places over the last decades, without having a "war" such as the war in Iraq. I would not call the Reagan intervention in Grenada a war, nor the George H.W. Bush intervention in Panama, nor Clinton in Haiti, nor Reagan in the Falklands. Yet these were uses of military power to advance American interests.

Now, to Micah's question. Two things have changed since February 15. The first is context: the series of Arab revolts in favor of democracy, the inclusion of Libya in those revolts, the brutal suppression of the revolt by a terrible regime, the call for outside support by the Libyan rebels, then the Gulf Cooperation Council, then the Arab League. If we do not intervene, we see the prospect of Qaddafi's victory pretty near (and predicted by the director of National Intelligence), and we must contemplate what that will bring. In my view, it may bring sufficient bloodshed to lead to American intervention later, and it may lead to Qaddafi returning to his nuclear program and to support for terrorism.  Certainly it will, as I suggested in the first post, teach a dire lesson to autocrats: The more they kill the safer they will be.

The second thing that has changed is that President Obama had spoken--more than once, and not casually.

"We are slowly tightening the noose around Qaddafi," he said at his press conference on March 11. The president said Secretary Clinton would meet with opposition leaders, that he was moving "swiftly," that he wanted to "change the balance . . . militarily" in Libya. And he spoke about where U.S. interests lay:

"I am absolutely clear that it is in the interest of the United States . . . for Mr. Qaddafi to leave . . . it is in the United States' interest and the interest of the people of Libya that Qaddafi leave . . . let me be as clear as I can about the desired outcome from our perspective, and that is that Qaddafi step down."

That's three times in one short statement. One has to wonder what the president means by invoking American interests in this way. If we have not only principles at stake but, in his word, "interests," why not act to protect and advance them?

Perhaps the president should not have said these things, and should have said "this is not our fight, we have nothing at stake, and we aren't getting involved." But he did not; he took sides. The only question now is which side wins. Given the small amount of effort needed from the United States to ensure that Qaddafi is defeated, it seems to me unwise to permit him to defeat us.

Picture of Micah Zenko March 11, 2011

Micah Zenko

I appreciate the opportunity to weigh in on the issue of what role the United States should have in Libya. While there are smaller points of contention with your post, overall I disagree that the president's statement compels the United States to take any specific actions toward Libya. To be explicit, President Obama has made one statement directed at Qaddafi on March 3.

"The violence must stop. Muammar Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave. Those who perpetrate violence against the Libyan people will be held accountable."

Telling a foreign leader they must leave does not commit the United States to intervene militarily to do so. In creating policy, every president makes aspirational statements that shape administration thinking, test allied support, and gauge public opinion--it is worth noting that only 12 percent of informed Americans support a military intervention (PDF).

Furthermore, like all preceding presidents, President Obama's statement has been further qualified by cabinet secretaries and senior civilian and military officials who have addressed a range of important political, military, legal, and humanitarian issues related to Libya.

U.S. foreign policy should not be based on chasing international perceptions, or, in the abstract, trying to alter the calculations of tyrants, who often display limited rationality. America's reputation is constantly being made and remade based upon the interests at stake and military and non-military capabilities that the United States can marshal regarding a specific issue.

For example, the Laurent Gbagbo regime in Cote d'Ivoire has correctly judged that it is not in U.S. interests to intervene on behalf of rebels who support the internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara. The United States has appropriately provided humanitarian assistance and applied diplomatic and economic pressure against Gbagbo. However, assuring that a tyrant loses in Cote d'Ivoire--or in a dozen other civil wars--is not in the U.S. national interest.

Thus, to answer you directly, I disagree that the United States must ensure Qaddafi loses. The only way to ensure that would be through a direct military intervention that physically removes him from his barracks in Tripoli. To paraphrase another George W. Bush administration official, intervening in Libya would be a "war of choice" at a time when America's economic and military capabilities are severely constrained.

Regime change in Tripoli was not in U.S. national interest on February 15, nor is it now. My questions are: did you believe it was in America's national interest to intervene militarily to remove Qaddafi from power on February 15? What has happened since then to influence your thinking?

Elliott Abrams March 11, 2011

Elliott Abrams

The key question is what our goal is. Military intervention is a means, of course, and not an end.

I take it that our goal is the end of the Qaddafi regime, for that goal has been stated by the president and secretary of state. At this point, Qaddafi's survival in power would weaken the United States and weaken the president, showing that defiance works and that our words have little meaning. Moreover, the lesson it would teach others--in Syria, for example--would be that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's mistake was not to kill enough people, and that extreme uses of violence work.

So how do we achieve that goal of getting Qaddafi out? We use a combination of means, which may include UN resolutions, Arab League and other Arab and Muslim actions, sanctions, freezes of his oil income, recognition of an alternative government, meetings with opposition leaders, broadcasting against the regime, and on to more forceful actions. These could include arming the opposition and/or preventing Qaddafi from using the military strength he retains to win this civil war. Preventing him from using air power is a possible part of the mix, and that might be achieved from NATO air bases in Italy or ships in the Mediterranean.

Such steps would constitute military intervention despite the fact that no American or NATO soldier would set foot in Libya. It is extremely difficult to believe, and I do not believe, that the air power and air defenses available to Qaddafi would present much of a problem for NATO military planners. What he owns is old and far inferior to the aircraft, missiles, and electronic warfare available to NATO and U.S. forces.

If one takes the position that military intervention should be ruled out, one should weigh the consequences. Qaddafi would presumably win his war and retake control of all of Libya. As noted, the lesson for all tyrants is that any amount of violence pays--and will not be blunted or stopped by anyone outside. One can predict bloody revenge against his opposition in Benghazi and elsewhere, which might itself prompt our intervention later--when it is too late to avoid all those deaths. He might well, back in power, return to supporting some terrorist groups or seeking weapons of mass destruction--programs he abandoned in 2003.

The conclusion, then, is that we have a national interest in his defeat and must act sensibly to ensure it. That will most likely include some military action of a limited kind, and we should not shrink from using the means to reach the ends we have embraced.

Micah, whatever your thoughts about whether the president should have said what he said, we are where we are. Do you agree that now we must ensure that Qaddafi loses?

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