Paul Pillar

Not-So-Limited Liability in Libya

The urge to respond forcefully to the conflict in Libya is understandable. The leader on the other side exhibits no redeeming values and is almost a caricature of a dictator everyone loves to hate. The Libyans who have joined the revolt are displaying admirable courage. The ruthlessness of the regime raises disturbing memories of other conflicts in other countries in which timely external intervention might have saved lives. And now the request by the Arab League to establish a no-fly zone reduces the appearance of such a step being entirely a western imposition.

But the urge of the moment seems to have taken attention away from questions that extend beyond the current moment. Too little analysis addresses what would come next after a western intervention—of how one thing may lead to another, how ends are as important as beginnings, and how things often do not go to plan. Michael Desch's advocacy in these spaces of a “limited liability intervention” is one of the more thoughtful attempts to provide such an analysis, but it too is seriously flawed in several respects.

First, Desch does not address how any military operation involves its own operational imperatives, which limit the limits we may want to place on the size and scope of the operation. This is what Secretary of Defense Gates was talking about when he explained the need for an assault against Libyan air defense resources as the first step in establishing a no-fly zone. Desch suggests this would not be necessary and air operations could be handed over to drones and cruise missiles. Even if unmanned operations potentially could accomplish whatever air support would make a difference to rebels on the ground (and I would trust the U.S. Air Force's judgment about that), unmanned craft can be shot down, too.

Second, although Desch emphasizes how limited objectives are more achievable than far-reaching ones, whether the adversary perceives our objective as limited is more important than whether we ourselves perceive it that way. For Qadhafi (and all those with a stake in continuation of his regime), his overthrow is by no means limited; it is instead as extreme an objective as we could have. They have every reason to hold out as long as they can. In this regard the Libyan conflict is quite different from Desch's Balkan examples, in which nothing comparable was being demanded from the Serbs.

Third, Desch's other example of the intervention in Afghanistan, far from demonstrating that it would have been a quick in-and-out if the United States had only been a little more nimble at Tora Bora, is an example of how an amply justified intervention can evolve into a costly long-term endeavor. The war in Afghanistan never was just about killing or capturing Osama bin Laden—as shown by continuation of the U.S. intervention into its tenth year, well after it was apparent that bin Laden and none but a few of his minions were even in Afghanistan. The United States is still fighting there because it initially did not want to leave a disorganized post-Taliban Afghanistan in the lurch and never could find a clear off-ramp. A post-Qaddafi Libya, which would probably be just as disorganized, would present a similar situation.

Fourth, the hope that some kind of western aerial intervention “might” be just enough to tip the balance in favor of the rebel forces is an expression of a wish rather than analysis of what exactly would or would not be likely to affect the course of armed conflict inside Libya.

And fifth, Desch overestimates the ease with which the United States could cut losses and pull out if, after intervening militarily, it did not achieve the objective of ousting Qaddafi. A large threshold is crossed when moving from the expression of a preference for Qaddafi to go, which does not test the prestige and determination of the United States, to direct U.S. military involvement, which does. How long would the intervention continue before a decision to give up gets made? If the United States does give up, what happens to the Libyan rebels then, and why should we expect to feel any more inclined at that point than we were at the beginning of an intervention to leave them to their own devices? If cutting losses were that easy, and if the intervention in Afghanistan really were all about getting bin Laden, why didn't the United States cut its losses there once bin Laden slipped away at Tora Bora?

Some others advocating intervention do not seem to have any kind of limits in mind, not even a limiting to Libya. Jackson Diehl dismisses the prospect that intervention in Libya would create a moral hazard in encouraging other unhappy people in the Middle East to expect U.S. military assistance when he says, “Perhaps it would. And: If a powerful opposition movement appeared in Syria, and asked the West for weapons or air support to finish off the Assad regime, would that be a disaster?” Let's see—while the United States is still involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it gets engaged in a war in Libya, and yet another war in Syria. Yes, that would be a disaster.