How not to use airpower—and other lessons from Obama’s intervention in Libya.

Should the United States have gotten involved in the Libyan civil war? The question is beside the point: We’re in it. More interesting is what lessons our experience has to teach us about America’s first major use of force since the decision to invade Iraq in 2003—and about President Obama’s first, albeit reluctant, initiation of conflict as Commander in Chief.

War is war—saying otherwise just confuses things. The talk of “no fly zones,” “humanitarian intervention,” limited purposes, carefully differentiated objectives (in this case using force to protect civilians, but not to overthrow Gaddafi, which is the objective of sanctions), UN mandates, and all the rest, mask a central reality. We are killing people, mainly soldiers of a kind, but also civilians and even friendly forces who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Drop bombs, lob cruise missiles, blow up bunkers and air defense sites, machine gun convoys, and obliterate tanks, and you are at war. As Churchill famously said, “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter.”

Most administrations don’t like the word “war,” and this one is very far from being an exception. But that’s what this is. The word implies unintended consequences, unplanned eventualities, and above all, an enemy who will react and attempt to thwart you. It’s not an engineering project, and it’s not clean. And by being finicky about defining it as something else, the administration runs the risk of prolonging the slaughter of civilians, the suffering of Libyan civilians throughout the country, unpredicted ripostes (Lockerbie II, anyone?), and all manner of other bad things. This means, among other things, explaining to the American people what you are doing and asking Congress for authorization—an oversight for which, quite remarkably, the Obama administration has not paid any price. The larger point though, is: Be serious. As the French—who have been rather heroic throughout this adventure—like to say, à la guerre, comme à la guerre. If you are at war, act that way.

Use air power to paralyze your enemy, not inoculate him. The United States reluctantly threw an initial punch to disable Libyan air defense systems, and then backed off. Its considerably less capable allies gamely kept up a peppering of Gaddafi’s security forces and mercenaries with precision guided weapons, but the regime never faced an obliterating dose of air power smashing command posts, any and all fielded forces, and anything resembling an armored vehicle. To the extent that the aim was to topple Gaddafi, and to the extent that the regime was already badly shaken, maximum force was called for. Instead, we have taught the Libyan dictator how to adjust to our air superiority—by mixing in with civilians, dispersing, and operating in cities. We thereby made the problem more difficult.

Sorry, the United States is still indispensable. The French and the British (the former more than the latter) took the lead. Bravo. The administration sees this as a good thing, as indeed it is. But decades of unilateral disarmament in Europe, which includes even the former great powers, means that they simply do not have the resources to conduct major military operations. The United States supplied, and still supplies, the command and control, the surveillance and reconnaissance, and the aerial refueling. We will have to supply more of the muscle too, because no European power has stockpiled anything like the amount of precision guided weapons for the prolonged, intense air campaign that is now required. Nor would any of this have gotten through the United Nations without our support. The Obama administration’s objective may be to lead from behind—not quite a battle cry to rally around, one must say—but doomed to lead it remains.

The use of power for changing purposes is inevitable. It is a conceit of politicians and a desperate hope of staff officers that the purposes of military action can be rendered crisp, clear, simple, and precise. They cannot. War is about politics, politics is messy, and this is war (see my first lesson), ergo this is messy. The idea of using force just to protect civilians is risible; inevitably, one is drawn into regime change (see also my next lesson). Having gone there, you cannot help having some kind of concern about what replaces Gaddafi. So you get drawn into the postwar dispensation too. War has its own logic, over which politicians and generals have limited control and pundits none.

Compromise is not an option. Colonel Gaddafi is not crazy or—to the extent he is—he is crazy like a fox. He is also murderous, vengeful, and creative. He carried out Lockerbie, supported the IRA, and sponsored various acts of terror in Europe—one would have to be a fool to think that he does not have a long list of people to pay back for the slapping around that we and the Europeans have administered. Americans are probably now at the top of his list for retaliation. An avid sponsor of terror in the past, someone dedicated to the acquisition of really nasty unconventional weapons, and a killer who boasts about going house to house, and room to room, to settle scores with his enemies, will have no compunctions about orchestrating another Lockerbie. By the way, do not assume that we have shut down all of his bank accounts, or that he cannot pull this off from exile in Harare or Caracas, either. Unfortunately for us, and hopefully even more so for the Gaddafi family, the only way in which this will end safely for the United States and its allies is if the Colonel and his sons go down in a blaze of glory, or at least with a few very loud bangs.

All this becomes clear to well-meaning decision-makers… belatedly. The reversal of American policy towards the Libyan civil war came well over a week into the crisis there, when (according to press accounts) it suddenly hit policymakers that there would be a massacre if and when the regime’s forces arrived in Benghazi. This in itself is remarkable: Why did it take so long to see something so obvious? The answer is because, understandably, none of the options looked good, military intervention against a dictator looked like something the Bush administration would have done, and the military was deeply averse to another adventure in Muslim lands. All reasonable enough. But an unpalatable logic of events is a logic nonetheless, and so we got in. And in a similar way, we will find ourselves arming and advising the opposition and ratcheting up our use of air power as other unpalatable logics, including some of those mentioned above, make themselves manifest. In short, welcome to a reality in which cleverness, subtlety, and keenly honed discrimination count for a lot less than a visceral desire to win.

Eliot A. Cohen is professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS. He has served as counselor of the Department of State, and directed the United States Air Force’s official study of the 1991 Gulf War.

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