Crafting Action into Policy

Intervention in Libya Requires an Endgame

Peter Juul explores how the Obama administration can turn its spur-of-the-moment decision to support an international coalition into feasible policy options.

President Barack Obama makes a statement on the ongoing developments in Libya in Brasilia, Brazil, Saturday, March 19, 2011. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama makes a statement on the ongoing developments in Libya in Brasilia, Brazil, Saturday, March 19, 2011. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Ever since President Barack Obama launched America’s latest military intervention in Libya, critics rightly wonder about the international coalition’s objectives. Inconsistency on the part of the administration and its international partners—calling for Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi to leave one day, insisting ongoing military operations will do no such thing the next—contribute to this confusion. But beneath the ambiguity and inconsistency, the Obama administration is creating—perhaps unwittingly or perhaps extemporaneously as the situation develops—the potential for a negotiated end to Libya’s internal conflict and the departure of Qaddafi.

The day after the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1973 authorizing the use of force to impose a no-fly zone over and protect civilians in Libya, President Obama laid out several conditions for Qaddafi to meet in order to avoid military action. These were:

  • An immediate ceasefire
  • A halt to the advance of regime forces on Benghazi
  • Withdrawal of regime forces from rebel-held cities of Ajdabiya, Misrata, and Zawiya
  • The establishment of water, electricity, and gas supplies to those cities
  • Allowing humanitarian aid into Libya

After the air campaign began, Obama and the regional U.S. military commanders made clear the goal of coalition air strikes were limited to the goal of protecting Libyan civilians and establishing a no-fly zone enshrined in Resolution 1973. The goals of military action, they argue, are not to support the opposition as it attempts to overthrow Qaddafi.

U.S. Army General Carter Ham, the head of our nation’s Africa Command, told Pentagon reporters on Monday that the military’s mandate “is to protect the civilians from attack by the regime ground forces. Our mission is not to support any opposition forces.” He later insisted, “The military mission here is pretty clear—it is very clear, frankly, and what is expected of us to do—to establish this no-fly zone; to protect civilians … to get the withdrawal of regime ground forces out of Benghazi.”

Reporters and critics have seized on the apparent discrepancy between President Obama’s March 3 statement, “It’s time for Qaddafi to go,” and the limited goals of the military campaign. Pressed during a press conference with Chile’s president on Monday, Obama said it was “very easy to square our military actions and our stated policies.” Air strikes, the president said, were limited to halting the threat Qaddafi posed to his own citizens, and the United States has “a wide range of tools in addition to our military efforts to support that policy,” including sanctions.

After taking down Qaddafi’s air defenses and turning his ground forces away from Benghazi, coalition fighter jets began targeting regime forces besieging the rebel-held town of Misrata on Wednesday. Coalition air strikes forced Qaddafi’s tanks to retreat from the city, though hard-to-target snipers continue to plague Misrata, and there are reports that they returned to continue shelling when coalition bombs stopped falling. The action in and around Misrata shows that the coalition is, in fact, attempting to protect civilians by suppressing the tanks and artillery Qaddafi is using to indiscriminately put down the rebellion.

Critics are right to point out the maddening ambiguity to the Obama administration’s war policy. The administration certainly hasn’t helped itself by communicating so poorly with the nation and Congress as to the rationale and purposes of our intervention. But perhaps such opacity on goals is necessary to maintain a fragile coalition including Arab states. After all, the United Arab Emirates pulled out of a pledge to deploy fighters in support of the no-fly zone, apparently over criticism of its intervention in Bahrain.

But the space between the limited goals of the coalition air campaign and President Obama’s more ambitious goal of removing Qaddafi as Libya’s leader suggests that the administration is unwittingly or on the spur of the moment setting conditions for negotiations between Qaddafi and the rebels. The air strikes are steadily weakening Qaddafi’s forces and giving the rebels breathing space. If these attacks can make Qaddafi meet the goals laid out in President Obama’s pre-intervention speech, then there exists the possibility for some sort of negotiated settlement between Qaddafi and the rebels that may include his exit from power.

There is precedent for this sort of use of force. While no historical analogies are perfect, the 1999 Kosovo air campaign ended successfully—NATO peacekeepers and Kosovar Albanian refugees went into the province, and Serb forces left, as a result of the combination of 78 days of NATO air strikes and diplomacy by Russia and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. And it is worth keeping in mind that NATO air strikes effectively supported the Kosovo Liberation Army, an unsavory group of insurgents, in much the same way coalition air strikes today are effectively supporting Libya’s rebels, who are an unknown quantity.

Yet there are two major obstacles to a successful outcome in Libya. The first is Qaddafi himself. His willingness to threaten merciless retaliation on Benghazi and continue fighting his own people even after threatened with international military intervention suggests that he will have to be killed before he is willing to give up power. In addition, his track record over his 41 years in power is so erratic and untrustworthy that there is no reason for anyone to trust him.

Second, Qaddafi has no trustworthy international interlocutor to interact with the same way Serb President Slobodan Milosevic did with Russia in 1999. Russia itself is internally divided on Libya, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin harshly condemning the coalition air campaign while President Dmitry Medvedev expresses support for its objectives. Qaddafi’s other possible allies are a rogue’s gallery of international pariahs, among them Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, neither of whom are in a strong diplomatic position to facilitate a negotiated end to the conflict.

But some sort of international diplomatic effort outside the coalition will be needed if Qaddafi is to be talked down from threats of crimes against humanity and into talks with rebels. If this strategy is the one the Obama administration has decided upon, then it needs to work hard to lay the diplomatic groundwork to make it successful.

Greater diplomatic effort with fellow coalition members, especially France and Great Britain, to agree on the goals listed by President Obama on March 18 will be necessary to ensure all partners are on the same page. Similarly, the administration should actively but quietly seek out a reliable state that can talk sense into Qaddafi once the coalition has achieved its military objectives. Turkey, opposed to intervention in the first place, is one possibility, though unhelpful rhetoric from its leadership may make such a choice untenable.

Unfortunately, the ambiguity and opacity of the Obama administration’s strategy makes it unclear what exactly the United States is pursuing in Libya. But its rhetoric and the conduct of the military campaign so far suggests that it is using force to set conditions for a negotiated settlement between Qaddafi and the rebels. Whether this approach is now the policy or instead one that is emerging out of several days of improvisation, the administration should clarify its goals internally and with its coalition partners if it has not done so already.

Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst