The Slippery Slope of Unclear War Aims

Libyan Action Needs Defining Goal

Brian Katulis explains why the fighting in Libya will test a fragile coalition as other challenges loom in the Middle East.

Hundreds of Libyans perform funeral prayers for people who have been killed recently in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, March 20, 2011. (AP)
Hundreds of Libyans perform funeral prayers for people who have been killed recently in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, March 20, 2011. (AP)

It only took a few hours of military strikes in Libya by the United States and European countries over the past weekend to achieve the thing most of Washington debated for the past few weeks—a no-fly zone. The fact that the Qaddafi regime lost its ability to conduct air operations so quickly was no big surprise—despite a lot of time and energy misspent debating a no-fly zone—but that was hardly the most difficult question.

As with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the most important question also is the most basic question: What do we want to get done and how much are we willing to sacrifice in lives, money, and strategic opportunity costs to achieve those ends? And with another Middle East war now underway, the Obama administration now faces a second important question: How does it strike the right balance in its overall approach in a region experiencing historic developments every day?

Getting the answers to these questions right is imperative because the Obama administration’s Middle East multitasking grows more complicated each day. The United States cannot afford to get bogged down on another front.

In Libya, the Obama administration risks making the same mistake it made in the Afghanistan war in this key aspect—not having a clearly defined end goal that tells the American people when the mission is completed. With the 10th anniversary of the start of the Afghanistan war on the horizon, the Obama administration has left far too many questions unanswered in both Afghanistan and Pakistan until this day.

The Bush administration had unrealistic goals for its military actions, spreading freedom and defeating evil, as if both could be done by American conventional military action alone. But where the Bush administration had unattainable goals for its military actions, the Obama administration seems to have none that are clearly defined.

Appearing on the Sunday talk shows this past weekend, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, the president’s top military advisor, couldn’t offer even a vague roadmap of what the endgame looks like in Libya. When pressed about the Libya operation’s end goals, Mullen said:

I can’t say exactly how long … the military part of this will be in effect. And I think it’s for others to determine where this goes long term. I mean, there have been lots of options which have been discussed. But I think it’s very uncertain how this ends.

By “others,” Adm. Mullen probably means first and foremost the commander in chief, President Obama, but also other countries such as France and Britain given the multilateral nature of this operation.

One core issue that needs further debate is the gap between what President Obama and his team have stated as an end goal in Libya versus what the current international “consensus” as outlined in U.N. Resolutions 1973 and 1970 says is the end goal. The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that Qaddafi should step down because he has lost legitimacy, but the U.N. resolutions say nothing about regime change and reaffirm the sovereignty of Libya.

In other words, the U.N. Resolution 1973 that authorized military action is solely focused on protecting civilians in Libya and says nothing about offensive operations to remove Qaddafi from power. When pressed about this gap, President Obama and his team talked about other means to remove Qaddafi from power such as sanctions.

Of course, perceived ambiguity of objectives and the lack of clarity in the administration’s public statements about what the military intervention is intended to do may in fact be a tactic for achieving the stated end goal of Qaddafi’s ouster. Having vague goals stated publicly may in fact be an important tactical tool in managing a fractious international coalition. But what if Qaddafi digs his heels in? Will the United States support military actions by the coalition to remove the Qaddafi regime from power? Will there be efforts to support the Libyan opposition and rebels, as vaguely defined as they are?

These questions require a clearer answer from President Obama, even if the plan is for the United States to take a backseat to France, Britain, or NATO. And a range of scenarios must be considered. If the United States is not willing to fully support Qaddafi’s removal from power—again, the president’s stated end goal—then it needs to contemplate a negotiated settlement that may or may not end with Qaddafi leaving. The opposition forces fighting the Qaddafi regime were saved from complete defeat by international military action, but that U.N. resolution authorizing the military action over the past few days does not pave an easy path towards Qaddafi’s removal from power.

One possible outcome is a stalemate on the ground that leads to further fractures in the international and regional coalition currently backing the operations. The international coalition on Libya was fragile from the start. Five major powers (China, Brazil, Russia, India, and Germany) abstained on the U.N. resolution authorizing action, the Arab League’s support for a no-fly zone was always less than met the eye, and disputes within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization about strategy, tactics, and operational leadership have already emerged.

As it deals with these complicated questions on the Libya front, the Obama administration faces continued challenges in other parts of the Middle East. Unrest in the oil-rich Gulf states continues to bubble underneath the surface of our headlines, and Yemen’s political turmoil could give space to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to resume its global terrorist ambitions out of another possibly failed state. And on top of all of the challenges presented by the Middle East’s popular uprisings, which are now approaching their third month, are all of the issues that were top on the U.S. policy agenda in the Middle East before—chief among them the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict that threatens to boil over at any moment, and an Iranian nuclear program that continues fitfully amid cyberattacks and other setbacks.

Given this tall agenda in the Middle East, the Obama administration should take great care in clearly defining what it is that it wants to achieve in Libya and what costs it is asking Americans to bear as another Middle East war unfolds. President Obama and his team have evaded the toughest questions tied to this latest war for now, but they won’t be able to do so forever.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow