Obama's Problematic Approach to War

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Appeared in World Politics Review

The U.S.-led military intervention in Libya is decidedly different than the ongoing military operations underway in Iraq and Afghanistan in at least one sense: Unlike those wars, which President Barack Obama inherited from his predecessor, Libya is Obama's war from start to finish. As such, it offers us the first true picture of how this commander-in-chief commands -- and how he believes U.S. force should be employed.

One thing we have learned is that the president is very much a reluctant warrior, as was evident even before he launched what his press secretary calls a time-limited, scope-limited operation. Consider the president's statement on Libya in early March, when noted that his administration had organized . . . a series of conversations about a wide range of options that we can take. To be sure, there are benefits to husbanding U.S. military power, especially given U.S. force commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in South Korea, Japan and the Asia-Pacific region. But there are also risks, especially in an era when so much of the world tacitly or openly depends on Washington to keep the peace or at least keep the bad guys at bay.

More troubling than Obama's initial reluctance has been the administration's lack of clarity when it comes to Gadhafi's future. Before the allied bombs started falling, the president said he was in consultation with the international community to try to achieve the goal of Mr. Gadhafi being removed from power. Although the president has since called for Gadhafi to step down, he was noticeably silent on the issue during his speech announcing the start of the war. Moreover, his surrogates and military team have muddied the waters. The goal of Odyssey Dawn, according to Sen. John Kerry, one of the president's allies in Congress, is not to get rid of Gadhafi because that's not what the United Nations licensed. White House adviser Ben Rhodes added, The effort of our military operation is not regime change. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, conceded that a military stalemate resulting in Gadhaf staying in power is a possibility. Yet, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the final result of any negotiations would have to be the decision by Col. Gadhafi to leave.

In fact, Mullen is right. Even though the rebels are taking back lost ground thanks to Western air power, a stalemate is still possible. The regime possesses the capability to roll them back very quickly, according to Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command. Moreover, given the alternatives before him, it seems likely that Gadhafi will fight to the last for Tripoli.

If the battle lines on the ground do settle into a stalemate, it will be due to the fact that so much was left up in the air by Washington. As Gen. Charles Horner, the now-retired commander of coalition air forces during Desert Storm, observed, The start of this war was characterized by half-measures, ill-defined thinking and conflicting political objectives.

Odyssey Dawn has also highlighted the paramount importance Obama places on gaining international consent to authorize and legitimize the application of U.S. military force. The administration sought and has repeatedly cited the endorsements of the United Nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League for the Libya intervention. Building broad international support for military action does have its advantages. Shared responsibility ideally means shared burdens. Unfortunately, it can also mean that the resulting operations are limited to the lowest common denominator in terms of strategic objectives. And sometimes it means as much work is put into holding the coalition together as carrying out the mission that brought the coalition together.

The Arab League, for example, asked for international intervention and promptly criticized the U.S.-led air armada after the intervention began. The GCC refuses to even call the allied intervention an intervention.

As for the operational consequences, this war by committee, like others before it, is producing its share of headaches. The U.S. didn't want to be out in front too long. Germany threatened to withdraw if NATO tried to do too much. Italy warned that it would block the use of its airbases if NATO didn't take control after the U.S. stepped aside. France wanted to bypass NATO altogether and develop a Franco-Anglo-American command. And Turkey lectured the rest of the alliance about pointing a gun at Libya.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen now says the alliance is in charge of all aspects of the operation. But even though the public wrangling is now behind the alliance, Libya reminds us of what the Balkans debacle taught us: When the U.S. doesn't lead from the outset, the Western alliance doesn't work.

Moreover, it's still unclear how the alliance will address the issue of humanitarian intervention to protect civilians, something that the U.N. resolution expressly calls for: Member states are authorized to use all necessary means . . . to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack. But one wonders how a no-fly zone and a time-limited, scope-limited air war will prevent Gadhafi from turning on the Libyan population when that air war ends, especially if regime change is not the objective.

This is not an argument against intervening in Libya in particular or against multilateral intervention in general, but rather against intervening anywhere in an ambivalent fashion and in pursuit of ambiguous objectives. Because of its unique global role, the U.S. is often obliged to police the world's toughest neighborhoods. Recent history reminds us that this can be done unilaterally or with a multilateral veneer, with the determining factor for success most often being the identification of limited and clear objectives.

Odyssey Dawn could topple Gadhafi despite Obama's initial reticence, ambiguity and ambivalence. But it might not, since toppling Gadhafi is not necessarily the objective. Obama needs to be prepared for that possibility -- and needs to avoid making this mistake the next time he's called upon to consider the use of U.S. military force.

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