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Libya: Limited Objectives Will Ultimately Be Decisive

Friday, March 18, 2011

Contrary to what opponents of a military intervention in Libya are claiming, the U.S. is not at war with Libya. In fact, it's very possible that the U.S. will not even be directly engaged in any eventual acts of war against Libya. And though endgames, outcomes and objectives are valid concerns and necessary considerations, much of the hand-wringing is premature.

The U.N. Security Council resolution will allow outside powers to target Moammar Gadhafi's air and ground forces to keep them from delivering the final blow that was all but imminent even as the council voted on the measure last night. I still believe that even less would have been needed two weeks ago to dramatically alter the calculus of both Gadhafi and those Libyan factions that have since rallied to his support.

But that "even less" could only have come from the U.S. And though I'm not convinced that a unilateral U.S. air strike would have caused the enormous diplomatic collateral damage that many claimed, the U.N. mandate is preferable for all the obvious reasons.

The cost of that mandate, however, is that the initial objective must now be to stop and reverse Gadhafi's momentum, with the hope of achieving a temporary stalemate, instead of providing the nudge to the rebels' momentum that might have made a decisive difference. With regard to the risk of escalation and mission creep, the key here is for the U.S. to continue to allow partner states to take the lead -- as the Obama administration has done, whether through strategic design or strategic indecisiveness (and I suspect it's a combination of the two).

While the ultimate goal is clearly to remove Gadhafi from power, the risk of escalation will be further limited by the fact that, in all likelihood, the standoff that will result from the initial airstrikes will lead inevitably to that outcome. A Gadhafi stripped of significant revenue and resources and forced to devote what little he has left to maintaining his hold on the rest of the country is a Gadhafi that cannot last. That means that subsequent intervention can come in the form of supplies and logistical support to the eastern rebellion, but also to the restive elements in the western part of the country who have been beaten back for now but not eliminated.

That might not catalyze an immediate decisive outcome of the sort imaginable three weeks ago, but it will certainly accelerate Gadhafi's ultimate departure. In the meantime, the international community can develop political contacts with a broader range of Libyan stakeholders and prepare for an eventual transfer of power.

Finally, with regard to the lack of public debate in the U.S. and the absence of a congressional authorization of the use of force, I'm not convinced that U.S. forces will in fact play a leading role here. Fortuitously, Britain and France have a joint air exercise scheduled for next week, whose scenario just happens to involve an air strike at a distance of 1,000 miles (via Jean-Dominique Merchet). Distance to Tripoli? A little more than 850. So the non-U.S. logistical support and air assets are in all likelihood already in place.

Should that change and direct U.S. participation occur, the War Powers Act remains in effect, providing Congress and the American public with the opportunity to limit or end the U.S. involvement.

None of this is to suggest that the outcome in Libya is guaranteed, which is usually what advocates of such an intervention misleadingly try to convince people of. But I think the risks are not as great as many opponents are suggesting.