While the United States greatly reduced its participation in the aerial war against Moammar Gadhafi’s forces several weeks ago, and also handed off command of this operation to NATO, we remain heavily involved, both in the supporting roles of intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, and also in filling major gaps in our NATO allies’ military capabilities, providing aerial refueling and also selling munitions to counties whose weapons stockpiles are very small.
To many Americans, weary of the seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our rationale for getting involved in Libya in the first place is puzzling. There is surely no shortage of dictators abusing their own people, either in other Arab states, such as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, or elsewhere, such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and we’re not sending aircraft to bomb them.
Although U.S. military operations almost always enjoy wide bipartisan support, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives took advantage of this ambivalence about the war in Libya by voting to rebuke President Obama for failing to obtain Congressional approval for his actions there. House Speaker John Boehner suggested that the President may well be in violation of the 1973 War Powers Act, by failing to get the necessary Congressional approval.
Not that there is any love lost for Gadhafi: it seems safe to say that Ronald Reagan’s April 1986 description of him – “this mad dog of the middle east” – still rings true. After the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, and earlier bombings which took place in Europe, all carried out by Libyan agents, Gadhafi was an absolute pariah. But in more recent years, after Libya agreed to end its nuclear program and pay reparations for the bombings of Pan Am 103 and another airliner, relations with Libya greatly improved, and Gadhafi’s government was said to be cooperating in the fight against al-Qaeda, acting as an ally, of sorts.
The Libyan rebels whom we are supporting have made some significant gains, taking over the eastern portion of the country, establishing their own government in Benghazi, and are continuing to battle Gadhafi’s forces in cities closer to the capital, Tripoli. But whether the rebels can actually depose Gadhafi is anyone’s guess. Although the NATO allies have voted to extend the aerial campaign for three more months, they have definitively sworn off using any ground troops, so the burden of winning this war still falls on the rebel army.
The rebels may succeed, possibly even quickly if Gadhafi’s regime falls apart with more key government officials and military forces abandoning him. But if this doesn’t happen — then what? Will the NATO countries, many of which are facing economic troubles, continue to finance an inconclusive military action when their citizens see other issues as greater priorities? Could Libya end up being partitioned in some way? What effect would this have on the production and shipment of Libyan oil, at a time when world oil prices are quite high? What would it mean for those seeking government reforms in other countries?
Although the war in Libya is far smaller than those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is only three months old, it shares one key characteristic with those conflicts: a lack of an exit strategy. Once again we see that it is easy to start a war, but that ending one without a clear victory is far harder.