Unexpected Failures in Libya

20 Apr

It’s been a month, and we’re still bombing Libya. I know this may come as a shock to you – you would not know unless you listened deep into Morning Edition or read page 7 of the daily paper. Sandwiched between tsunamis, melting nuclear reactors, and Congressional budget battles, Libya only briefly captured America’s fickle attention.

Ignoring the opportunistic and blatantly political backlash by Republican Presidential contenders (faux and real), the legitimate critique of President Obama’s Libya policy has fallen into one of three basic camps: our plan is non-existent or unrealistic, the plan wasn’t communicated or Constitutional, and why this plan (Libya) and not other plans (Sudan). Me, I fell into all three camps – I admit I didn’t like the smell of this from the start.

But no matter which camp you fell in, the conventional wisdom also generally stated that while we can win the purely military phase of such wars (see: Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq), the trouble would come once the rockets stopped flying, and the long, troubled, national building, elections and government phase began. Turns out the conventional wisdom misunderestimated our conventional military might – don’t look now, but we’re struggling in the shooting war part too.

With a messy mandate to protect civilians, defend rebel territory but only kinda attack the Gaddafi regime, NATO is stumbling. While still bombing select targets in Tripoli to seemingly little effect, in Misrata, last rebel stronghold in the west, and throughout eastern Libya, occasional NATO strikes from the air are not enough to make a tangible difference on the ground. Gaddafi’s forces have moved into the cities and dispersed with civilians, stymieing NATO attacks by ensuring that any bombing will break the West’s Hippocratic Oath. The rebels can gain no ground, Gaddafi’s forces continue their shelling, and a bloody stalemate endures. Internally, NATO continues to squabble. While NATO’s Danish secretary-general called for more precision bombing aircraft, French military commanders claimed plenty of aircraft were available, but more trustworthy target intel was needed. Meanwhile, the US is pulling out A-10’s and AC-130’s, exactly the kind of precision ground-pounders NATO says it wants.

Let me clear – winning militarily in Libya is a matter of political will, not capability. George Friedman notes the fallacy of the Immaculate Intervention – humanitarian wars, those that substitute sentiment for tangible goals, have an expectation of near zero cost to the invading force or the civilians to be assisted. NATO could (and to some small degree, must certainly be) send in terminal controllers and special forces to collect ground intelligence and direct strikes. NATO could also send arms and advisors to assist the rebels. Then they could send in security to defend the advisors. We have seen this movie before. We may be replaying it again – the Brits are talking about sending senior military strategists, and the EU humanitarian aid guards, a la Somalia ’93 Redux. The West does not like to lose wars once we’re in them. But Libya is Limbo – enough will to stay, not enough to “win” even the conventional military portion where our strength lies.      

How long will the average Libyan civilian be supportive of Western involvement if it proves ineffectual? The latest reports are troublesome:

Frustration was growing among residents in Misrata, where Gadhafi’s troops have intensified their long siege of the city in recent days. The doctor criticized NATO for failing to break the assault with its month-old campaign of air strikes. “We have not seen any protection of civilians,” the doctor said. “NATO air strikes are not enough, and the proof is that there are civilians killed every day here,” he said.

The theme was echoed in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, where spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga said at a news conference: “There’s no more room for hesitation or for not standing with determination against what is happening in Misrata and other Libyan cities, because the destruction that Moammar Gadhafi is causing in Libyan cities is great and extensive.”

This is where the United States loses. Early in his latest book, Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier tells the story of visiting a Russian in a decrepit Soviet-era apartment block, utilitarian concrete and humorless. The man is proud of his meager furnishings, and excitedly shows off each stick of furniture and modern convenience. But when the tour arrives in the kitchen, the solitary incandescent bulb hanging from the ceiling fails to light when the switch is thrown. The man, visibly annoyed, fiddles with the switch, and then, after retrieving a step-ladder, the wiring around the light itself. Finally, the man fetches a new bulb and changes it with several deliberate turns. He flips the switch again, and the light turns on. Opening his arms wide and gesturing to the whole of the now well-lighted room, the man proudly exclaims, “Ahhhhh. America!”

Vice-President Cheney infamously predicted that US troops would be greeted as liberators in Iraq, and they were . . . at first. It did not take long for the lights to not turn on fast enough, and the warm glow of America to dim. America may now be coming too slow to Libyan dissenters and rebels. We, with NATO, are the greatest military force on the planet. How can we not have “won” yet? And upon winning, how can we not make everything work right away?

3 Responses to “Unexpected Failures in Libya”

  1. Brian April 20, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    Every study of “strategic” bombing in WWII shows it had little effect, and our massive strategic bombing did little in Viet Nam, etc. Tactical bombing has a better track record.  The Air Force probably should be melted back into the other three services, but it has its proponents, and every once in a while we are told again, ad nauseum, that we can do this or that from the air at little cost to us.

  2. STEEL April 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    German industrial production increased during the heaviest bombing period.

    If we had a draft plus a reasonable military budget (ie not equal to the whole rest of the world combined ) we would be far less likely to use our military in a wanton way

  3. Brian Castner April 22, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    As a student of history, I feel obligated to mention that like many things, “strategic bombing” has changed since the early 1940’s. The development of GPS guided munitions has made comparing today’s bombing campaigns to WWII or Vietnam like comparing, well, just about anything from the 1940’s and 1960’s and today, technology-wise. We can efficiently hit anything we want, whenever we want, and face none of our hurdles from WWII or Vietnam. If we wanted Libya to stop making steel, or oil, or anything, we could within the next week. Our issue is intelligence and political will, not technology or evevn actual military strategy (of which, “stragetic bombing” would be a part).

    Now, now if that has anything to do with what I was talking about in the piece, but I wanted to clear that up.

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