Green Room

Libya – What is the mission?

posted at 10:00 am on March 23, 2011 by

The supposed mission is to protect civilians from being killed by their own government according to the UN resolution.  And we’ve been told that the mission is not “regime change”.  Except, maybe it is:

“As long as Gadhafi remains in power — unless he changes his approach provides the Libyan people the opportunity to express themselves freely and there are significant reforms by the Libyan government, and he steps down — there’s still going to be a potential threat to the Libyan people,” Obama told reporters at a news conference here, his final stop on a five-day tour of Latin America. “We will continue to support the efforts to protect the Libyan people, but we will not be in the lead.”

So … we’ll fly until and “unless he changes his approach provides the Libyan people the opportunity to express themselves freely and there are significant reforms by the Libyan government, and he steps down”?

Uh, hate to break it to everyone but that sounds like “regime change” to me.  It also sounds like a pretty open ended commitment.  The Hill is also confused about the rhetoric it is hearing.  It too thinks it sounds like “regime change”.

Then there’s this:

“When this transition takes place, it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone,” Obama said. “It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily involved in enforcing the arms embargo. That’s precisely what the other coalition partners are going to do.”

Great and wonderful I guess.  But if the president thinks this is akin to Pilate washing his hands of Jesus and walking away, that’s not going to happen.  While it is nice to see Europe step up, this is and always will be considered an action by the US on the “Arab street”.

And about mission creep?  Well, consider this:

As the coalition military effort has unfolded in recent days, it has been unclear how closely it would coordinate with opposition or armed rebel forces in Libya. Obama did not rule out the possibility of arming the rebels.

“Obviously, we’re discussing with the coalition what steps can be taken. I think that our hope is that the first thing that happens once we have cleared this space is that the rebels are able to start discussing how they organize themselves, how they articulate their aspirations for the Libyan people and create a legitimate government,” the president told CNN.

Arming the rebels (which the administration admits they know almost nothing) would be picking sides.  In a rebellion/civil war.  Given the description of how the country breaks down tribally, we’d immediately alienate half the Libyans.   And we’d then have manufactured a vested interest in seeing the future Libya shaped in our imagined image.

Any idea of how the “optics” of such a mission creep would be viewed by the rest of the ME?  And it would apparently be creep since the commander on the scene does not think it is part of his mission:

Gen. Carter F. Ham, who is leading the U.S. effort in Libya, said today that the mission is “not to support opposition forces,” but later added that the coalition will not support rebels if they take offensive action against Gadhafi’s regime, only if they are attacked.

Or perhaps they will per Obama not ruling out the possibility of arming the rebels, a very short step from supporting “opposition forces”.  In fact it would be “supporting opposition forces” for anyone objectively viewing the situation.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes says:

“What we’re trying to accomplish is to stop the assaults on those population centers and get the Gadhafi forces to stop their offensives there, their shellings of those civilian areas and their potential attacks on civilians in those areas; and then have a no-fly zone in place that can ensure that Qadhafi is not using any of his air assets or substantial military assets to launch offensives against his own people,” Rhodes said.

But their air assets really never were used very much or very effectively.  Admiral Sam Locklear yesterday at a DoD briefing:

Qadhafi’s air force was never the epitome of potency, Locklear said Tuesday; before the alliance attacked last weekend, Libya had some old broken-down jets and a few dozen helicopters it used in its campaign against the rebel alliance. Almost all of those aircraft are now destroyed or weren’t operational in the first place, Locklear said, meaning they’re now a non-issue: “I am completely confident that the air force of Colonel Gadhafi will not have a negative impact on the coalition, and that … if there were anything that we didn’t see or that we [weren't] able to influence by our initial campaign, that we’d be able to manage that.”

There are also reports coming in that the attacks in civilian areas have not been halted, but instead continue.

Last night, there was no sign the heavy Western bombardment had shifted the balance decisively in favour of the poorly armed anti-Gaddafi forces. Libyan government forces were fighting back last night on the eastern front line near the key city of Ajdabiya. The counter-attack followed the failure of rebel forces to take the city on Sunday despite air attacks having destroyed regime tanks and artillery. By yesterday evening, there were reports that the regime’s troops were moving south once again to threaten the route to Tobruk and the Egyptian border.

So now what?  And a question that comes to mind – what if we arm the rebels and they begin to drive on Tripoli and in so doing, begin killing civilians?  Show stopper?  Do we intervene then too?

Finally the new coalition command structure appears to be one of compromise which may or not function well.  NATO appears it will have a role because of its supposed superior “command and control capability”.  But the French also want a lead roll and certainly the Arabs want a say so.

The French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppé, told the French parliament yesterday that a compromise deal would see a “political steering group” of coalition foreign ministers plus the Arab League take over political direction of the air campaign.

And anyone who has made a study of war knows that such a structure (I hesitate to call it a command structure) is fraught with many downside possibilities, one of which is an inability to quickly make decisions, especially with the necessity to consult with a “political steering group” first.  It will be more like war by committee.   Yeah, nothing could go wrong with that, could it?


Bruce McQuain blogs at Questions and Observations (QandO), Blackfive, the Washington Examiner and the Green Room.  Follow him on Twitter: @McQandO

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Comments

The mission = distract from Obama’s other policy failures and enhance the ability of Congress to further erode our freedoms.

Mission Accomplished!

gryphon202 on March 23, 2011 at 10:35 AM

Wonder if it’s the same committee that decided on the make-up of the platypus?

Robert17 on March 23, 2011 at 8:05 PM