Senator John McCain wants the Obama administration to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. He complained to Fox News that “if the United States' policy … [is] that Qaddafi must go, then it seems to me that we should … take steps to prevent … [him] from being able to continue to kill people from the air.” His colleague Senator Joseph Lieberman echoes these calls for a more aggressive policy, justifying it on the grounds that ”this is one of those rare cases where the Arab world is really calling on us to help the opponents to Qaddafi.”
Of course, McCain and Lieberman have a long track record of pushing U.S. military intervention in the Middle East: They led the charge in Iraq and were among some of the most vocal proponents of the Afghan surge. Given their enthusiasm for massive social engineering in Middle Eastern states it is not surprising that the Obama administration is not rushing to heed their advice. Ironically, it is because we are militarily and diplomatically overcommitted in Iraq and Afghanistan that we are in no position to do anything meaningful in Libya.
That’s too bad because, as the old saying goes, “even a broken clock is right twice a day.” A limited liability strategy for Libya—one that aims to balance Qaddafi’s military power without committing the United States to deeper and longer-term involvement—might make both strategic and moral sense. There is a chance that small-scale employment of U.S. military force might tip the balance in favor of the rebels and end a growing humanitarian crisis without sucking us into yet another major commitment in the Middle East.
To be sure, the United States could continue to live with the Qaddafi regime. While it is odious and has in the past posed (and may again in the future pose) a minor threat to U.S. lives and property, it certainly presents no existential threat to our security. Moreover, if we set overly ambitious goals for ourselves, such as stopping the violence immediately and fostering a vibrant democracy in a deeply fractured and painfully backward society, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. The last thing we want is to put ourselves on the slippery slope of deeper involvement in what could be a protracted civil war.
But it is possible for us to intervene in Libya employing a limited liability strategy consisting of three components. The first would be the recognition that unlike Iraq, and like the “good war” in Afghanistan in 2001, we have potential indigenous allies on the ground there who are willing to fight to topple the incumbent regime. We can limit our involvement to airpower and to otherwise holding other people’s coats.
Second, we actually have a reasonable track record of marrying our high-technology advantage in airpower (not just manned aircraft but also cruise missiles and unmanned drones) with the low technology skills of even fairly primitive allies. Remember that a small group of former U.S. Army officers worked hand-in-glove with the Croat forces to plan the 1995 Operation Krajina Storm that broke the back of the Serbian forces and their local allies in Bosnia and set the stage for an imperfect, but real peace there. We subsequently duplicated this effort in 1999 with our air campaign which forced the Serbs to withdraw from the historic heartland of Kosovo under simultaneous pressure from NATO in the air and the Kosovo Liberation Army on the ground. The result was not pretty but it did halt the slaughter and get the Serbs out.
But the most recent and successful example of limited liability intervention was in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11. The combination of U.S. airpower and the Northern Alliance cavalry quickly drove Osama bin Laden’s Taliban allies from power in Kabul. Had the United States not taken its eye off Afghanistan before the Battle of Tora Bora in December of 2001 to begin pivoting for its massive intervention in Iraq, we might have captured or killed bin Laden and closed up shop before most Afghanis realized we had even been there.
The third, and most important, element of a limited liability intervention strategy is that we define our goals modestly. Intervening in Afghanistan, to topple the Taliban, capture or kill bin Laden, or at least disrupt his al-Qaeda network, made sense. In contrast, staying in Afghanistan for more years than we were in Vietnam with the idea of pacifying the country and socially engineering a functional democracy is far too ambitious.
Similarly in Libya, if we go in thinking that to be effective we have to completely destroy his air force and air defense system to tilt the balance in favor of the rebels, that we have to be sure that the anti-Qaddafi forces will win, and that once they prevail Libya will become a robust Arab democracy, we are setting ourselves up for a big fall.