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Gaddafi’s Endgame: How Will the U.S. Get Out of Libya?

10 minute read
Fareed Zakaria

Call it the Goldilocks military plan: Not too much, not too little, not too unilateral, not too American. The operation against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya mirrors the moderate temperament of its architect, Barack Obama. But will it work in the rough realities of international politics? That’s the question that will be tested in the weeks ahead as high-tech images of cruise missiles hitting their targets give way to a mess on the ground in Libya.

President Obama has launched an operation that has two distinct qualities, one highly unusual and the other familiar. At its broadest, Obama’s diplomacy has tried to redefine the exercise of American power. It is an effort at a distinctive form of multilateralism, deeper than anything any President has tried before. At the same time, Obama is proposing a limited military intervention for a problem in which U.S. interests are limited. That’s something Presidents in the past have promised but mostly been unable to deliver as events on the ground forced them to escalate for fear of being humiliated. However wise his multilateral instincts, it is how Obama handles this latter problem that will determine the mission’s success — and duration.

(See a TIME photographer’s dispatches from Libya.)

So far, Obama seems to have pleased almost no one. For those who had been urging military action from the start, Obama dithered and remains too cautious. For those wary of another open-ended U.S. commitment in the Muslim world, Obama suddenly turned from restraint and became reckless.

But more than anything else, what appears to have infuriated many American politicians is Obama’s unwillingness to put the U.S. in the driver’s seat. “We have a Spectator in Chief instead of a Commander in Chief,” fumed Newt Gingrich. Senator Lindsey Graham criticized Obama for acting as if “leading the free world is an inconvenience.” And Rick Santorum levied the ultimate insult, noting that the French — the French! — had been leading the charge.

They are right, in part: Obama does not want to be seen as the ringmaster. The diplomacy of the past few weeks has broken a tradition born in the Cold War. For decades, U.S. Presidents unilaterally identified crises, articulated responses, determined actions and then persuaded, bribed and threatened countries to join in the “collective action.” The U.S. ran the show with little interference from others but paid all the prices and bore all the burdens. Countries that would benefit from a military intervention rarely stood up to request it. They didn’t need to. America would act, and they could free-ride.

Take a recent example. In the spring of 2003, George W. Bush refused both to give international inspectors more time to do their work in Iraq and to try to get a fresh U.N. resolution through, each of which he saw as an obstacle to attacking Iraq as quickly as possible. The result was a war that was tainted from the start, without a single Muslim ally and with few major countries invested in success. When things started going badly, criticism mounted; the U.S. was left in virtual isolation and, as Iraqi casualties piled up, was painted as the enemy of Arabs around the world.

(See pictures of surreal life in Libya’s no-fly zone.)

America has always done better in the role of the reluctant imperialist. The simple fact is that the world does not like its leading military power to be overly eager to intervene in foreign lands. In fact, until the Cold War, the U.S. had a very different image from European great powers precisely because it had few expansionist impulses. America entered World War I after three years of bloody fighting just in time to tip the balance. It entered World War II only after Japan attacked it and Hitler declared war. The U.S. had the capacity to be an imperial power but chose not to be one. Yet during the Cold War, Washington developed the habit of intervening early and often in far-flung places, worried about communist takeovers. As a result, America was seen in much of the Third World in the same light as the European colonial powers, forfeiting a crucial moral and political advantage.

In the Libyan crisis, the Obama Administration made clear from the start that it was not enthusiastic about military action and would support it only if it were requested by the Libyan opposition and the Arab League — and with Europe doing much of the heavy lifting. This led to a remarkable turn of events in which on March 12 the Arab League officially requested that the U.N. impose a no-fly zone over Libya. This shift has not gotten the attention it deserves. In the 66 years since its founding, the Arab League has served as a shield for dictators and rarely produced anything but windy rhetoric about Arab solidarity and Palestine. The idea that it would act against one of its members — and because of human-rights violations! — was unimaginable one month ago. Five days later, the U.N. Security Council passed resolutions authorizing action against Gaddafi’s forces. France and Britain were positively itching for military action.

See more about Obama’s strategy in Libya.

See “Splits Emerge in Libya Coalition.”

It is highly unlikely that any other countries would have pressed forward in the way they did had they felt Washington was going to plunge in anyway. The Obama Administration made clear that other countries had to be invested in the Libyan operation, which meant they had to offer public support and military or economic assistance, before the U.S. would get involved. So we now have the prospect of a Libyan undertaking that will be operated and financed in significant measure by countries like Britain, France, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom are far more affected by instability in the region than the U.S. is. Yes, France and Britain have squabbled over who will lead, but in this new kind of multilateralism, coalition management will be a constant challenge.

Answering that challenge depends in part on how one defines leadership. Harvard’s Joseph Nye once observed that press accounts of the first Gulf war invariably described it as a great weakness that America had to ask its allies to pay for the war. But, Nye suggested, isn’t it an even greater sign of power that you can get your friends to foot your bills? More important, if we want a world in which the U.S. is not the only country fighting every battle, we will have to allow other countries to have lead roles and real responsibilities. The U.S. cannot always do the cooking and tell its allies to do the dishes.

(See pictures of the scene in Tripoli.)

Thus far, this whole discussion has been about process, not strategy. And strategy is more worrying. President Obama has repeatedly stated a goal — regime change in Libya — and yet outlined quite limited means by which to achieve it. The coalition has launched air attacks against Gaddafi’s regime, but they are mainly designed to prevent him from attacking his own civilians. What if Gaddafi actually abided by a cease-fire? There is little evidence that the rebels can topple him. He would still control most of his country, his army and his many resources. You know your strategy is flawed if your problems mount when it succeeds.

Over time Gaddafi could slowly regain power. The military imbalance between him and the opposition forces remains vast. So does Washington expand the military means it is using in Libya or live with goals unfulfilled?

These concerns led me to suggest a different course in the lead-up to the implementation of the no-fly zone. I share the view that with all that is happening in the Arab world, the U.S. and other nations could not abandon the Libyan opposition as it faced a massacre. But I believed helping that opposition was a wiser course than direct military intervention. In the past, America has been able to fund guerrilla wars quite effectively, providing guns, food, fuel and intelligence to locals who wanted to fight for their country. Almost always, we successfully destabilized the old regime. Most important, this prevented Washington from getting onto a slippery slope of military escalation.

But the task at hand is to define how best to execute the strategy being pursued. The coalition could get lucky and Gaddafi could fold or be killed. His army could turn against him. But hope is not a strategy. So the coalition needs to get active putting all the pressure it can on Gaddafi, economic and political, to get him to quit. The people around him should be given inducements to defect. And those incentives cannot be all sticks. Gaddafi retains loyal support in most African countries, a product of his generosity over the decades. Those countries could be intermediaries and potential retirement homes. Gaddafi will have to see some kind of exit strategy that doesn’t end at the war-crimes tribunal in the Hague. If he ends up living a lavish life in South Africa and Libya is free of his madness, it’s a small price to pay.

(See the challenges of Obama’s first war.)

At the same time, we should arm the Libyan opposition forces. Now that we have tied ourselves to their fate, we certainly need to help them more substantially. The arms embargo, which applies equally to Gaddafi and the opposition, will have to be circumvented. A genuine rebel army would put further pressure on Gaddafi, who would know that he faced death at its hands, and would push him toward some kind of exit.

In a wise book, How Wars End, Gideon Rose points out that American policymakers have often entered war with little thought given to the endgame — the political order they wish to see at its close — hoping that military action would create some kind of positive momentum and things would work out. Maybe that happens, but often things only get more messy. What we need to decide is, What is the realistic outcome we are working toward in Libya? We are not committing enough force to actually destroy Gaddafi’s regime. Do we want a partitioned Libya, with Tripoli held by Gaddafi and Benghazi by the opposition, the latter sheltered by a permanent no-fly zone? That is the likely outcome given the resources we are currently putting to bear.

In the final analysis, however, the most significant challenge for Barack Obama is to keep America’s military involvement limited. If Gaddafi does not fall immediately, it will take just a few days for people in Washington to start claiming that Obama lost, Gaddafi won, and America has been humiliated. The response should not be to escalate. The U.S. used its military in Libya for a specific, limited mission: to destroy Gaddafi’s air defenses. That goal will be achieved; others might not. Gaddafi can be placed in a quarantine of sorts, isolated and ostracized until he quits. Slobodan Milosevic survived the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. There were Presidents who managed to keep military missions limited — Dwight Eisenhower — or even withdraw them when they were not working and live to fight another day: Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs; Reagan in Lebanon. They lived with partial success, stayed focused and husbanded America’s power and global position. Those who didn’t want to be seen as “losing a country” often ended up losing a lot more.

See how Libya has given Russia’s Medvedev a confidence boost.

See TIME’s exclusive pictures of Libya’s rebels.

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