Finish the Job

Written on April 26, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Africa, Americas, Democracy & Human Rights, International Law & Organizations, Middle East

By James M. Dubik

President Obama insists that protecting civilians is the only military objective in Libya and air power is the only means we will use to achieve it. But the Libyan government’s attacks on civilians continue, and air power alone will not stop them.

Public pronouncements aside, the unstated strategic aim of the intervention in Libya is to remove Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and his regime, and things are not going well. The United States and NATO must accept that there is no easy way out of this war now that we are in it.

In war, leadership is not exercised from the rear by those who seek to risk as little as possible. Washington must stop pretending that we’ve passed the leadership for the Libyan operation on to NATO. We did so in Bosnia, claiming Europe would take the lead, only to have the 1995 Srebrenica genocide jolt us back to reality. Like it or not, America’s leadership has been crucial to most of NATO’s successes. The same will be true in Libya.

We should also have learned from the 1999 Kosovo war that air power alone does not produce victory. There, it took the threat of a ground assault and the erosion of Russian support for Serbia to tip the balance in NATO’s favor.

Bombing is extremely effective against targets that are clearly distinguishable from civilians and friendly forces. But Colonel Qaddafi’s forces are using a classic defense against air superiority: get as close to your enemy as possible. That means that the use of air power alone has had the perverse effect of putting those forces even closer to the people we are trying to protect. And even the most skilled pilots are ineffective when weather is poor or they are forced to fly high and fast because of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

Advocates of a short-term bombing campaign were wrong. Civilians are not being protected as envisioned, Colonel Qaddafi isn’t folding, and as tribes threaten to enter the fray, Libya may be nearing collapse. Washington now has three options — none of them ideal.

America could pull out, making a tacit admission that the intervention was a strategic mistake. But a resurgent Colonel Qaddafi would likely seek revenge against the rebels and those who helped them. Moreover, NATO’s resolve would be called into question, as would America’s. Whatever influence Washington might have in the region would evaporate and Al Qaeda would waste no time pointing out that the United States had abandoned Muslims on the battlefield. Read more…

James M. Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general who oversaw the training of Iraqi troops from 2007 to 2008, is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.

As published in www.nytimes.com on April 25, 2011 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on April 26, 2011, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Finish the Job).


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