Mission Creep over Tripoli

Washington is not world's policeman and regime changer. 

Even as U.S. aircraft fire on Libyan air defenses and ground forces, it is difficult, indeed almost impossible, to make sense of just what exactly are American objectives in its latest round of conflict with elements of the Arab world. For two weeks the Obama administration resisted calls for a no-fly zone. It argued that establishing such a zone was exceedingly difficult—Libya had air defenses that would have to be shut down, and the country was so large that a no-fly zone was virtually impractical.

It then took the United States and its allies less than 24 hours to establish a no-fly zone. So much for the purported difficulties confronting the world’s leading military power. There can now be little doubt that the zone could easily have been established when the Libyan opposition first called for it. But it was not.

The lost fortnight has already proven costly. Qaddafi’s forces have penetrated deep into rebel-held territory. Qaddafi has ordered that no mercy be shown to the rebels, and hundreds of Libyan civilians have paid the ultimate price for seeking freedom. Meanwhile, Amr Moussa, president of the Arab League, which surprised Washington by calling for a no-fly zone, has indicated that the league may revisit, and ultimately retract, its request. He appears to have been under the impression that the coalition’s efforts to dominate the skies over Libya would result in minimal damage on the ground. That could well have been the case two weeks ago. It is no longer the case today; Qaddafi’s forces have advanced too far, and threaten to snuff out the rebellion in its entirety.

To accomplish their mission, American and allied jets have had to pound away at Qaddafi’s armor and artillery. And Moussa, and perhaps the league he heads, has developed cold feet. An all-out air attack on Qaddafi’s forces was not what he expected.

Where does the administration seek to go from here? Washington has never articulated its objectives in Libya, other than to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which does not call for Qaddafi’s departure. Yet that is exactly what President Obama has repeatedly demanded. Will the United States take “all necessary measures”—to use the resolution’s phrase, to ensure that Qaddafi departs Libya? Would that involve sending American troops onto the territory of yet another Muslim country?

Or will Washington content itself with supporting a no-fly zone even as Qaddafi’s forces and the rebels fight a protracted civil war? Will Washington turn a blind eye to the ongoing bloodshed? Would it remain aloof if it appeared that Qaddafi’s forces had routed the rebels and that the mad dictator would remain in power, while calling for revenge (meaning terrorism) against the United States and its allies? And if so, how would Washington justify doing nothing more than supporting other states that are maintaining an increasingly irrelevant no-fly zone?

Or, yet again, in light of a potential volte-face by the Arab League, would the administration back down from helping its allies enforce the no-fly zone? Would Amr Moussa, whose call for a no-fly zone finally spurred a confused administration to action, once again call the shots in Washington? That would certainly represent a rapid comedown from what Madeleine Albright had not all that long ago described as the world’s “indispensable” power.

Washington now finds itself potentially stuck in yet another segment of the great Middle Eastern briar patch even as it has not yet extricated itself from Iraq, or, for that matter, Afghanistan. The administration cannot afford any ambiguity about its objectives in Libya, with its influence in the region already at virtually an all-time low. Any misunderstanding of American intentions can only send that influence spiraling further downward.

Washington must announce that under no circumstances will it send ground troops into Libya. It must state that it will support coalition enforcement of a no-fly zone for a given period—three months even six months—to enable the European allies, rather than the US Air Force and Navy, to pound Qaddafi for as long as it takes to ensure that he can no longer terrorize his people or seize territory from the rebels. But it will not push for yet another “regime change.” That must be left up to the Libyans themselves.

Regime change has always looked better in Washington than it has on the ground. President Obama certainly was too hasty in demanding that Qaddafi go. At least he was not carried away by his own rhetoric. His initial unwillingness to commit American forces to lead the coalition’s frontline operations may have demonstrated the shallowness of his words, but, with American aircraft attacking Libyan ground units, he is coming ever closer to leading America’s military down the slippery slope of mission creep that could result in a protracted engagement in North Africa. Better that the administration eat its own words than that American troops fight and die in support of a cause whose scope has yet to be defined, and whose purpose is far from clear.

If the Libyan people seek regime change, it is up to them to effect it. Washington and its allies can provide them with some support, but the job must be theirs to complete. And if they cannot complete it quickly, they should not expect the United States to bail out their chestnuts. America may still be the most powerful nation on earth; that does not mean it must be always seek to be the world’s policeman. Those days should be, and hopefully are, over.