Paul Pillar

The Elusive End Game in Libya

The United States and its allies seem to have a lot of trouble finishing some of their endeavors, especially wars. There is anxiety about what will happen in Iraq if all U.S. troops leave, as they are scheduled to do under an existing U.S.-Iraqi agreement. Gregory Gause appropriately notes the irony of some of the same people who were gung-ho about using military force to inject democracy into Iraq now feeling frustrated that democracy in Iraq is not letting them keep U.S. troops there indefinitely. The irony could be extended by noting also that just as democracy is proving to be a frustration as U.S. involvement in this war nears (maybe) an end, so too was it a frustration at the beginning of the war, when popular opposition in Turkey led Ankara to refuse to allow U.S. troops to move into Iraq from the north.

There is the other, still major U.S.-led war, in Afghanistan, which, as we also are reminded in these spaces, is not Northern Ireland (where it was hard enough to bring a conflict to a close—just ask George Mitchell). The Taliban undeniably are difficult negotiating partners. But any refusal to deal with them is a prescription for endless warfare in Afghanistan, with even greater difficulty in finding so much as a halfway graceful exit from this costly expedition.

Then there is NATO's sort-of war in Libya. Having now dragged on for several months and with not a lot of obvious, measurable progress being made, the frustrations of trying to come to closure are increasingly being felt and expressed here, too. And that's without even thinking about—a lot more thought should have been given to this in the first place—what happens in Libya after Qaddafi is gone. The long, drawn-out, how-do-we-end-this frustrations in Iraq and Afghanistan all have had to do with what ensued after the old regime was toppled, an objective that in each case was accomplished in the first few weeks of Western military involvement.

In Libya, the allies haven't even gotten to that point yet. NATO doesn't appear to have a single clear vision of how to get to that point. Is it a matter of inducing Qaddafi to do something, or making his regime crumble beneath his feet, or killing him with a lucky airstrike, or a rebel army pushing him out? The lack of a strategic vision for how this war will get rid of Qaddafi is perhaps not surprising, given that regime change wasn't even ostensibly the purpose when the war began.

The latest thoughts by policy makers in the leading participant NATO countries involve the idea that Qaddafi could stay in Libya. In one respect that idea makes sense. Qaddafi is under an international criminal indictment, which tends to kill any incentive—to put it mildly—to leave one's home country voluntarily. But the concept of an out-of-power Qaddafi residing in Libya has its own problems. One of the principal ones is that Qaddafi doesn't occupy any official position at all. He's just “the leader,” floating up there somewhere above the weird political structure he calls a jamahiriya. If he doesn't leave the country, exactly what step could he take that would constitute a relinquishing of power? How could anyone be sure that he had relinquished power, let alone given up the other privileges and economic assets that he and his family have acquired? Another problem is that given the bitterness and resentment that already existed and that the civil war itself has intensified, it is unlikely Qaddafi himself would have any confidence in being able to live out his years under an alternative power structure in Libya.

The current phase of this war will end somehow, sometime, even if nobody can make a good prediction now about either means or timing. And then the war can move, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, into the messy post-regime-change phase. Given the anomic state in which Qaddafi has left Libya, the messiness is likely to be as bad as in those other two places.

The moral of this story is contained in the words that the old magician spoke to Mickey Mouse in the Disney version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Don't start what you can't finish.