Ironically, Qaddafi has occasionally caved in the past when he has been personally threatened, as happened in 2003 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq persuaded him to begin talks on surrendering his nuclear program. But if he is committed to surviving in blood, as he seems to be now, then minus a new threat from Qaddafi’s declared foes—NATO and Washington—we may be facing a conflict even more drawn-out than Kosovo was.
The question is whether Obama will squarely confront that danger—and the possibility that his and NATO’s credibility are once again at stake. At bottom, Obama is strapped by a latter-day iteration of what the late Richard Holbrooke once described to me as “Vietmalia” syndrome—a wariness of suffering U.S. casualties in out-of-the-way places like Vietnam and Somalia, where both the national interest and the exit strategy were unclear. Vietmalia syndrome was what made Clinton so reluctant to consider ground troops in Kosovo, and now Obama is dealing with something far worse, since the United States has added Iraq and Afghanistan to the list of appallingly costly U.S. military ventures in the years since. Call it “Vietmaliraqistan” syndrome.
But paradoxically, in order to avoid adding Libya to what has already become an unwieldy multi-syllabic syndrome, the president may have to offer up more than he has so far in assistance, and even consider ground troops.