Commentary Magazine


Defining Our Objectives in Libya

There is nothing wrong with wars fought for limited ends–in some circumstances. The Korean War was still a success even if we didn’t reunite the peninsula. More recently the involvements in Bosnia and Kosovo were triumphs even though NATO troops did not march on Belgrade. Likewise there is nothing intrinsically wrong with redefining objectives as a war goes along–starting with one set of ends in mind and then winding up with something else. That’s what the Union did during the Civil War, which started as simply an effort to restore the status quo ante bellum and wound up with a more ambitious goal of eradicating slavery.

All that said, I would be a lot more sanguine about the outcome in Libya if the Obama administration and our allies had done a better job of defining its objectives–and did so in more sweeping terms than we have so far heard. Although Obama and other heads of state have talked about how desirable it would be for Qaddafi to go, his departure has not been made a formal objective of the international coalition. On TV yesterday, Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, even said that the war could conclude with Qaddafi still in power.

As I argue in a Weekly Standard editorial, that doesn’t make any sense–allowing Qaddafi to remain in power would consign us to a costly stalemate. A limited objective makes sense in places like Bosnia and Kosovo where the rebels seek autonomy or independence from the central government–objectives that can be achieved without toppling the central government. But the rebels in Libya are not fighting to carve out a Republic of Eastern Libya. They want to change the government in Tripoli. As long as Qaddafi continues to rule over any part of Libyan territory, the war will go on–and with it a drain on American military resources which are in short supply these days.

To quote Lincoln: “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” The sooner Obama and other coalition heads of state recognize that, the better. Then perhaps they will make the commitment necessary to help the rebels toss out Qaddafi.

Beyond that, it is imperative that we also make plans for a post-Qaddafi world. To ensure that Libya does not slip into chaos, we should begin planning now for the dispatch of a peacekeeping force, preferably under the joint auspices of NATO, the UN, and the Arab League. America’s presence should be kept to a minimum on the ground, because our troops tend to be a lightning rod, but we need to make sure that there is not a vacuum of authority after Qaddafi’s eventual departure.  I only hope that the necessary planning is taking place behind closed doors at the Pentagon and Africom (African Command) despite the administration’s troubling failure to articulate clear war aims in public.