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Inside the Intervention

There’s a clear logic behind Obama’s Libya strategy—but that doesn’t mean it will succeed.

Strategy is a strange beast. Up close—as it is unfolding—even a good strategy can appear muddled, confused, and indecisive. Its logic only becomes clear over time. President Obama’s Libya strategy demonstrates this. It has drawn howls of criticism from across the political spectrum, most of the “muddled, confused, and indecisive” variant. But, when dissected, it does have an internal logic.

Put simply, Obama’s Libya strategy is designed to avoid the most undesirable outcomes rather than optimize the chances of a desired outcome, to do something without “owning” the conflict, to maintain maximum flexibility as the situation evolves, and to do all of this in the face of powerful constraints. The question is whether this strategy can actually work.

President Obama appears determined to avoid two particularly bad things: an outright Qaddafi victory—which might chill reform underway in the Arab world and unleash a new spate of support for terrorism—and Al Qaeda influence within the rebel movement. NATO airpower has helped prevent a Qaddafi victory, but ensuring a rebel victory might require arming, training, and advising the anti-regime forces. President Obama has not committed to this, telling NBC’s Brian Williams that he was “not ruling it out but I’m also not ruling it in.” This ambivalence reflects the fact that the U.S. objective at this point is not a rebel victory but denying victory to Qaddafi. If this objective holds, the Obama administration might be willing to tolerate a protracted conflict or even some sort of partition.

The question of an Al Qaeda role among the rebels—particularly if the conflict drags on—is trickier. Libya was an important source of outside fighters in the battle against the United States in Iraq. Undoubtedly some of these fighters returned home with extremist inclinations and military expertise. In a March 29 hearing, NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis told the Senate that intelligence agencies had picked up “flickers” of an Al Qaeda presence among the Libyan opposition fighters.

To deal with this issue, the Obama administration is first attempting to get a better picture of the opposition both through talks with its external leadership and, if news reports are accurate, by sending intelligence agents into Libya. Beyond that, the administration appears to favor engaging the rebels without embracing them. Given conditions, this makes perfect sense. If the United States rejects them now when they are most vulnerable and they do hang on and become more effective, the rebels could remain suspicious and even hostile toward the United States, perhaps accepting help from Al Qaeda or Iran. Engaging now does not guarantee influence but failing to engage guarantees that the United States and NATO will have no influence.

Critics of U.S. involvement with the rebels base their case on how little is known about them and on their military weakness. There is no doubt that the rebel movement is a loose, almost chaotic mélange of local factions with limited military ability. But almost every insurgency and rebel movement in history started this way, even ones that eventually succeeded, such as the Vietnamese and Chinese. While the Libyan rebels cannot decisively defeat Qaddafi at this point, neither can he defeat them, at least so long as NATO airpower is in play. Preventing an enemy from attaining victory is always easier than defeating an enemy outright. The Taliban shows that even a rag tag force can sometimes stave off defeat. This applies to Libya as well.

While seeking to avoid the most adverse outcomes, the Obama strategy also rejects American ownership of the conflict. The administration is actively seeking to have someone else take it off of America’s hands, particularly the provision of direct support to the rebels. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for instance, told Congress on March 30 that other nations, not the United States, should arm the rebels. Clearly the Obama strategy is designed to find the middle ground between disengagement and domination. The idea seems to be to maximize flexibility by keeping all options open as long as possible. This is a good idea in a highly fluid situation.

The Obama administration also must implement this strategy in the face of severe constraints. In Washington’s hyper-charged political environment, whatever President Obama does provokes loud opposition. Foreign crises become stalking horses for broader political opposition. The days when partisan debate stopped “at the water’s edge” are long gone (as President Bush found out in Iraq). The fragility of the American economic recovery and opposition to government spending also constrain Obama’s options in Libya. No U.S. military option for a century has drawn as much cost scrutiny. Daily tallies of the expenditures ricochet across the Internet. In a broader but still important sense, the Obama strategy in Libya seeks to avoid replicating the Bush administration’s involvement in costly wars. This is nothing new—being “not Clinton” was important to the Bush administration so being “not Bush” is equally important to the Obama administration.

Still, history shows that having an internal logic—even a sound one—does not assure a strategy’s success. President Obama faces a number of major problems in pulling it off. For starters, he has not sold his approach to the American public and Congress. In the American system, mobilizing support is just as important to a strategy as its effect in the world. While it may eventually come, President Obama has not yet found his voice on strategy as he has on domestic issues.

Americans often attempt to understand world crises and conflicts through the lens of recent experience. This does not help President Obama generate support for his Libya strategy. Critics claim that, since the United States supported rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s and, today, is fighting the remnants and descendents of that movement, supporting rebels is always a bad idea. That this assertion misreads history—it was abandoning Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal that led to the dominance of extremists, not supporting anti-Soviet forces in the first place—and draws a general conclusion from a single example makes little difference. So far, though, the Obama administration has not quelled this criticism.

In a broader sense, President Obama is struggling to transcend American history. For two centuries, Americans have believed that any use of military power is war, and the objective in war is victory over the enemy. They have little tolerance for military operations that deviate from this pattern, such as the limited use of force in support of diplomacy or armed action leading to something other than decisive victory. After a foray into “limited war” from Korea to Vietnam, the United States walked away from the idea. What became known as the Weinberger-Powell principles argued that the U.S. military should never be committed unless vital interests are at stake—and then, only with the intention of clear victory. This became inculcated into the American strategic culture. And, since World War II, Americans have also come to expect that the United States will dominate any military operations in which it participates. The normal state of affairs, Americans believe, is for the United States to be is the senior partner in a coalition.

The Obama strategy represents a step away from the Weinberger-Powell principles and the notion that the United States must dominate any operation where its military is involved. Whether it works will be determined by the unpredictable whims of Muammar Qaddafi, the willingness of other states to take some or all of the burden off of America’s hands, and the president’s ability to sell the American public and its elected leaders on a strategy that runs counter to their tradition and inclinations. While Obama’s Libya strategy has a distinct logic, its success thus remains in the balance.

Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.