Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Libyan Dilemma

I'm conflicted over our endeavor in Libya for much the same reasons everyone else is. On the one hand, if we didn't go in, the rebel forces would have been crushed, and Gadhafi/Qadaffi/Kadafy... whatever his name is, he's a head of state that the world would certainly be better off without. (We'll go with 'Gadhafi'. As good a choice as any. You'd think we'd have made up our mind after 40 years.) On the other, it is a third military front for a nation stretched threadbare by two, and you can't forget the cost at a time when our national pocketbook is already pretty light. (Not empty. But light.) And of course, we said the same thing about Saddam Hussein, and look what happened.

There are other concerns, though, that I think are merely being overly skeptical; the kind of things that under Bush 43 would have been well-founded concerns, but under Obama are unproven cases of once-bitten-twice-shy. It must be first established that this is the first conflict under Obama that is completely, unambiguously his. Iraq and Afghanistan were inherited over half a decade in, each. Whether he is doing well with the hands dealt him is not the issue at hand; we'll leave that debate alone. All that matters here is that he was dealt those hands, and thus was forced to occupy his time reversing, not reversing, or dealing with the consequences of irreversible actions taken over years upon years, decisions that were not his to make. You can grade him, certainly, but only really in the sense that you can grade the performance of a manager hired in midseason to replace a guy who led his team to last place and no chance at the playoffs. You don't really start judging him until he has a season all to himself.

The most major concern raised that fits this category is how, no matter what the timeline aimed at by the administration, no matter how much the administration says they're only going to provide air support, many just automatically leaped to the conclusion that Obama is lying and that there are going to be ground troops, eventually, and that we'll be in Libya for the next decade. This came about almost immediately upon the planes showing up. Immediately, people assumed a 10-year occupation, virtually on Day One. This seems gun-shy to the point of near-ridiculousness. America is capable of short wars. Relatively recent ones, too. Grenada. Kuwait. Bosnia. Somalia. Not all wars are open-ended meat grinders. We've just forgotten what the short wars look like. This seems to me like a very straightforward thing with a very straightforward goal, no matter how much anyone wishes to pretend there's no endgame: the ouster of Gadhafi and that's it. Unless I see actual boots on the ground, actually see them and not just rumors or speculation of them, or until we stay past the ouster of Gadhafi, I'm not inclined to make the open-ended argument myself. I'm willing to trust, at least for now, that this will be kept as short as possible.

In addition, Jon Stewart and John Oliver of the Daily Show did a skit about 'freedom packages'. Since my non-American readers won't be able to load the clip, I'll give the gist. Three 'packages' were outlined: a 'bronze' package, in which we say 'Oh, how sad' and then don't do anything of substance (Sudan was provided as an example), a 'silver' package in which we utilize diplomatic channels but don't send a military (Egypt was their example), and a 'platinum' package, in which our military does get involved (Libya, of course). So far, so good. But then Oliver claimed that the countries in question don't get to decide which 'package' they get.

Under Bush, and in fact under a lot of Presidents, true enough. Under Obama, though, not so fast. Technically, yes, it's true. Other countries can't decide what we do with our instruments of government.

But they can make requests. And Obama has actually been rather accommodating in granting requests. There have been three high-profile cases thus far- Iran, Egypt and Libya- in which a request has been made of the United States or the West in general. Egypt and Iran's rebels both asked for no outside involvement, both on the grounds that as soon as the West showed up, the rebellion would instantly cease to be about the rebels and instead be about the West, as their respective dictators would instantly seize the chance to paint the rebellion as a Western puppet, stripping the rebellion of any grassroots credibility. It was something that, no matter the odds, they had to do themselves. Both wishes were granted. One turned out well, one turned out badly, but both wishes were granted. (The Daily Show painted Iran as the US being too scared to take them on. Perhaps that is true as well, but that neither agrees or disagrees with this, and so we'll merely acknowledge it and otherwise leave it alone.)

The Libyan rebels, meanwhile, did request our help. They begged, pleaded, groveled for Western assistance, and quickly, lest they be killed. At the eleventh hour, the day before they were predicted to be slaughtered by Gadhafi ('bloodbath' was a popular word), help came. Again, wish granted.

Sudan, for their part, would now like similar intervention and are stunned they didn't get it before Libya did, and in the story, while Sudan is requesting the so-called platinum package, the administration remains seemingly as committed to bronze as every other administration. Fair enough. Wish not granted, and not likely to be granted anytime soon. Point for the Daily Show there.

It must be further established that Obama was in a bad spot from the get-go, Libya-wise. There was no right decision for him to make. His choices, for all intents and purposes, were but two: Either go in, and be denounced as a warmongering flip-flopper who's spending money we don't have, or don't go in, and be denounced as sitting back and doing nothing while brave freedom fighters are mercilessly cut down by a brutal regime, cursing his name as they die. Either way, he was going to get savaged by both sides of the aisle. It's the exact kind of decision that they don't put in the promotional materials when they try and encourage someone to run for the office. It's the decision that makes Presidents age prematurely.

As Obama's actions have borne out thus far, it appears, by my reading, that he would have preferred to see the rebels saved but to have someone else do the heavy lifting so he wouldn't have to. Say, NATO. Could the rebels turn out to be ideologically against us as well? The allied forces appear willing to take that chance.

'Couldn't he have asked Congress for approval beforehand?'

To put it bluntly: no.

Specifically, Obama would have had to go through the House, controlled by the Republicans, who have said up and down that their big goal is to defeat Obama in 2012. Anything they can hang on him, they'll do.

In the last days before the airstrikes began and the no-fly zone enforced, you may recall that the rebels were on the ropes, the media and the Gadhafi government giving them 72, 48, 24 hours before they were massacred. If I'm John Boehner, and I'm thinking only of Obama's defeat, I don't exactly want to make this call either, but I do know that I want whatever Obama's decision is to be wrong. My solution is, if Obama asks for approval, I run out the clock. I drag my feet, let Gadhafi do what Gadhafi will do, render the vote moot so I don't have to make a stand on it, and then hit Obama over the head with 'look at all those dead freedom fighters, why didn't you do something' as if he'd never even asked in the first place, counting on the fact that 'asking Congress' won't count as 'something'. If Obama had asked Congress, it would have ended the same way, and he would have gotten the same amount of credit, as if he'd watched the rebels die on a live feed while munching on a bowl of popcorn. If Obama wanted to help the rebels out, he had to go over the head of Congress.

For all of the many factors and difficult decisions, though, there is one area in which Obama has a distinct advantage.

He has the benefit of the war having front lines.

Front lines were a staple of war for the vast, vast majority of human history: one army on one side, the other on the other side, and most of the fighting happens where the two brush up against each other. As air technology advanced, though, front lines began to vanish, as it became much easier to deposit troops in any part of a warzone, and extract them as well. Battles could be fought in the air, or from the air. A war could be fought throughout a theater, as opposed to in one specific region.

In Libya, though, this is not the case. The theater is something like a football field. Gadhafi's forces are trying to get to an endzone in Benghazi. The rebel forces are trying to get to an endzone in Tripoli. The only way to either end zone is to go straight through the enemy and push them back, as all the key cities in the battle are along the Mediterranean coastline. The first team to reach their respective endzone wins.

This makes things very easy on Obama as far as the actual prosecution of the conflict goes. First, there is no ambiguity as far as being able to tell who's winning and who's losing. Just color-code a map according to who controls what. Not only can you tell at a glance who's winning, you can also tell who's driving downfield. Second, it cuts a huge country down to bite-sized chunks. You know exactly what parts of Libya need support. A child could draw up an air strategy. Just note the front line, point out the first key point west of it, circle it on a map and write 'BOMBS GO HERE'.

In order to make it to Tripoli, though, an upgrade of guns for the rebels is likely necessary. At the moment, while Gadhafi's forces are well-armed, the rebels are scraping by with whatever random assortment of guns they can scrounge up. For them to make the kind of gains they need to make, they may need further reinforcements. But does anyone, most importantly Obama, have the stomach to go down a road of arms deals that has burned America so many times before? Do we even have the stomach to clear the rebels' path for them all the way to Tripoli for as long as it takes for them to get there, even though regime change is the only possible desirable outcome and that goal is the worst-kept secret around?

Be glad you're not the one that has to make these calls.

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