At the time of this writing the United States may or may not still consider itself engaged in a limited-means campaign in Libya, whose declared objective is to protect Libyan civilians and whose implicit objective is regime change. This military endeavor is, or has been, conducted in contravention of hard-learned American strategic doctrines; and it is an odd pick when contrasted with other more pressing and significant challenges to US vital interests in the Middle East.
As is the case with many lessons learned, the US has paid a high price for the insights embodied mostly in the Weinberger Doctrine and also in the Powell Doctrine. Yet, as is also often the case, it has offhandedly brushed aside that hard-earned strategic prudence.
Vital Interests vs. Low Confrontation Costs
The Weinberger Doctrine starts up by asserting that the US should only undertake a military endeavor in the event that its vital interests are at an imminent risk. Yet while the Gaddafi of earlier decades was a clear hazard to US interests, in recent years, at least as of 2003, he has become a team player of a sort. Gaddafi came clean with regard to his clandestine nuclear program, to an extent played ball in the war on Al Qaeda, and as his sons have grown more influential his regime has sought not to step on American and Western toes unnecessarily. Libya was a far cry from being the perfect ally, but it could not be considered a clear and immediate risk to vital US interests – definitely not at the top of the threat list, the one to be picked next for the use of force. In addition, what lesson could one hope to convey by this use of force to the next dictator who considers relinquishing his nonconventional ambitions and crossing over to the American camp?
Gaddafi’s brutality with his own people is also argued as a casus belli. But if such brutality is the yardstick for war, then the US should also attack Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and a dozen other countries; many of which top the list ahead of Gaddafi. The most that can be argued is that Gaddafi seemed to have represented an expedient point between intensive media coverage of brutality toward civilians and a seemingly low confrontation cost: relative political ease, a minimal diplomatic price and a low operational risk for an air campaign. But would that fragile editor-driven circumstance have sufficed to convince Weinberger to commit forces to battle?
The next guidance of the Weinberger Doctrine is to clearly define an attainable end state. But what is the attainable end state to aspire to in this case? Are the Libyan rebels a coherent group committed to a unified articulated agenda? If successful, are they a guarantor that Libya will remain a functioning state that can transcend tribal rivalries? And it remains unclear why the relevant Western staffs and agencies assess that under the rule of these unfamiliar rebels the vital interests of the US and its allies will be better served than before. It is just as questionable whether democracy can suddenly bloom out of what might be no more than an eclectic association of underprivileged tribesmen, nothing-to-lose bands and opportunistic foreigners with an uncertain agenda.
Clear Intention of Winning vs. Risk Avoidance
Both the Weinberger Doctrine and Powell Doctrine emphasize that the only way to conduct military operations is wholeheartedly, with the clear intention of winning. Military forces should have the capacity to accomplish their objectives, and every resource and tool should be mobilized to achieve a decisive outcome. Powell emphasized that an overwhelmingly superior force should be applied in a minimal amount of time, coercing the enemy to capitulate. Weinberger stressed that forces should never be asked "just to be there".
Yet the planners of the Libyan operation have preferred force economy and risk aversion over winning. First and foremost has been the demarcation of acceptable risks and consequently acceptable modes of military operation, while the gap between those tolerable ways and means on the one hand and the ends on the other hand remain knowingly unaddressed. The operation’s architects have only been willing to commit and risk limited assets applying standoff fire and possibly special operations, and whatever those can achieve – will be achieved. It is not the objectives and theater characteristics but economy and risk aversion that have driven the campaign’s design.
This does not mean that the military efforts are doomed to fail. They may still somehow succeed. But it does mean that the operation’s architect failed to take a well-grounded decision to go to battle, as he or she did not methodically match ends with ways and means.
And this leads to another key observation: as the US’s interest at stake was probably not vital, and as a halfheartedly assembled campaign carries with it a greater risk for a disappointing outcome, it is doubtful if the former justified the latter. One should risk failure when one has no choice but to fight, but why risk a disappointing ending – and its resonation on national power projection – when lesser interests are at stake?
In pursuit of cost and risk aversion, by the end of March 2011 – before any of the campaign objectives had been achieved – the US further down-scaled its level of commitment and handed the lead over to the Europeans. Which raises the question: if the US is committed to the objectives, why isn’t it seeing the campaign through? And if the US is not committed to the objectives, what was it doing in Libya up until late March?
While the US probably did not have a critical reason to attack Gaddafi, its allies might have had vital interests at stake. Several European partners, especially Italy and France, can put forward a case as to why their national interests are at stake. This is not a consideration that should be taken lightly, and it warrants the full attention of the United States.
Yet the Europeans too must face a burden of proof akin to that of the Weinberger and Powell Doctrines, and must demonstrate how ends, ways and means come together. At the very least, the European partners should have been required to check the following boxes:
· Define the precise interest that is at stake, and define what sort of a threat is posed to that interest. This can be defined as the Strategic Need.
· Define why a victory by the Libyan rebels would satisfy the Strategic Need. While a campaign should be given an opportunity to run its full course, at the time of this writing it is not self-evident why the rebels’ advance would be satisfying a Strategic Need, whereas the conduct of fighting in and of itself might be detrimental to the Strategic Need.
· Put forward the case why a victory by the Libyan rebels will not create new threats to such or other vital interests (such as Libya turning into a failed state or a radical Islamist regime taking over).
· Put forward the case why a campaign of limited risks and restricted means, in which major or ground operations were ruled out from the outset, would necessarily bring about a victory for the rebels, and within a reasonable timeframe.
Only once these boxes have been frankly checked, should the US favorably consider committing to a campaign along side its European allies.
The Broader Context – What It Is Not
It is commonly argued that the Arab world is undergoing a liberal spring which sets the scene to the US intervention in Libya, and that the campaign in Libya somehow enhances this spring. A closer look however, calls this argument into question.
Egypt is the Arab world’s most important nation and supposedly a showcase for a liberal spring. But to date, what has happened in Egypt has not been a revolution but a counterrevolution. The real revolutionary was Mubarak, who wanted a shift from a dynasty of Army-backed generals to a succession line of Mubaraks. When the Tahrir Square demonstrations erupted, and they can be given the benefit of the doubt as being spontaneous, the Army seized the opportunity. In a real revolution, the armed forces are defeated, or disintegrate or move to the side of the rebels. Nothing of the sort had happened. The Egyptian Army stood back and allowed the demonstrations to run their course until Mubarak had lost sufficient political capital; at which time the Army swiftly removed him from power and terminated the main demonstrations. In fact, the Army now has the strongest political grip in decades as many civilian government institutions have been suspended or dismissed.
This does not mean that nothing has changed, and the Egyptian political system has indeed undergone shocks whose eventual consequences are still unknown and might be far-reaching. There is also a commitment to hold elections that cannot be easily brushed aside. But the two main players dominating the game today are the military via its proxy, Mubarak’s old political party, and the undemocratic anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood. The proverbial Facebook and Twitter crowd doesn’t hold much real world ground.
The second most significant friction point is Bahrain, a critically-located island with a Shiite majority and Sunni regime. Bahrain is currently the forefront of the Shiite-Sunni collision; essentially the first semi-overt direct battle between Saudis and Iranians. Hence, the two most important processes, in Egypt and Bahrain, are both institutionalized and dominated by old guard powerbrokers – as opposed to being a popular, liberal spring.
It falls outside the scope of this article to analyze in due thoroughness the other points of unrest in the Arab world, and it will suffice to assert that as is evident from Yemen to Syria this unrest is much closer to being a matter of ethnic and tribal power struggles or radical Islamic agitation, or both, than a popular liberal spring.
The Broader Context – What It Really Is
A focus on the "we must do something" Libyan crisis and its "we will only use airpower" companion, runs the risk of losing sight of the ball: a gradual disintegration of the Middle Eastern front of US allies and fundamental challenges to the US’s strategic effectiveness.
The US is on the verge of losing Iraq and Lebanon to Iran, if it hasn’t already lost them both. Bahrain and Yemen can still go either way. Turkey, a key regional player, has shifted its policies and it is doubtful whether it can still be regarded as a strategic ally. The developments in Egypt might mean that this key ally could also be lost or at least cool off, as Turkey did. Via Hamas, Iran is impeding the US in the Palestinian arena. In fact, other than Saudi Arabia and of course Israel, the United States has lost or is at risk of losing all of its weighty partners in the region. And if the US is to keep its eyes on the ball and not be distracted by the Libyan sideshow, it must be concerned with the possibility that the next significant Iranian move will be to challenge the Saudi royal family. To rise to that challenge, the US must be creditable, initiating, prompt and effective.
Yet American strategic effectiveness is eroding. It has consistently demonstrated that it lacks effectiveness in most of the challenges presented to it in the past few years: from the struggle with Iran over hegemony in Iraq, to the Iranian nuclear program, to the rise of Iranian-backed forces in the internal Lebanese and Palestinian arenas, to the growing Iranian military capabilities in vital seaways and seaboards. Iran is deterring the US and effectively rolling back American influence in the region. This has been unhelpfully complemented by the occasional American disregard to allies or their interests, as was evident in the cutting off of Mubarak or the disappointing attention to the Gulf monarchies’ concerns over Iran.
It is in this real world context, that going after Gaddafi’s head has been both a strategic distraction as well as unhelpful to the attempt to stabilize a front of partners that the US can work with.