Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Tough Talk on Libya Not Matched by Tough Action

President Obama was talking tough on Libya while in London today to meet with Prime Minister David Cameron. According to the New York Times account:

Mr. Obama said that although the two had agreed to rule out “boots on the ground,” they would “continue Libya operations until Qaddafi’s attacks on the people cease.” The Libya leader “must leave office,” Mr. Obama said, and needs to understand “that there won’t be a let-up in the pressure.”

Yet there is a curious mismatch between ends and means. The U.S., in particular, is not applying the pressure necessary to topple Qaddafi fast.

The Times has another revealing article today on the conduct of NATO air operations. Reporter Eric Schmitt notes the chain of command for air strikes is “convoluted,” starting “with political orders from Brussels,” passing “though two military command centers in Italy,” and concluding with controllers aboard an AWACS airplane over the Mediterranean which conveys orders to the actual aircraft. He also notes:

With no troops on the ground, NATO planners and pilots acknowledge that they often cannot pinpoint the shifting battle lines in cities like Misurata. . . . Information on Libyan forces filters up from Central Intelligence Agency officers and allied special operations troops working with the rebels on the ground, as well as from the rebels themselves. But NATO planners say they have no direct contact with anyone on the ground to help coordinate the roughly 50 allied attack missions every night. . . . Commanders begin reviewing targets 96 hours ahead and prepare a final list 24 hours before missions take off. Bombs are then loaded on planes and scores of aircraft take to the skies from bases around the Mediterranean.

This reminds me of the way air operations were conducted in the 1990s, with targeting lists being prepared well in advance of missions. This made air power much less effective than it has since become in Iraq and Afghanistan where pilots are in direct contact with ground troops who guide them into targets they can see with their own eyes. If direct links with the ground aren’t present, then air strikes will not be as effective as they need to be—especially since Qaddafi is exploiting NATO’s sensitivity about civilian casualties by having his troops abandon marked military vehicles and fight incognito.

Moreover, the U.S. is refusing to participate fully in the attack missions. We are providing support of all kinds, including Predator drones, but we are not sending our own aircraft to bomb targets even though some of the aircraft in our arsenal (e.g. A-10s and AC-130) are the most capable ground-attack aircraft around. Ironically, the British and French, after spending years complaining about American unilateralism, are now complaining that the U.S. is being too multilateral—and they have a point.

The way to break through this logjam is to put NATO tactical-air controllers on the ground with Libyan rebel forces so they can direct pinpoint air strikes. We also need to commit U.S. aircraft directly to strike missions and expand the target list to include the infrastructure supporting Qaddafi’s regime as well as his ground forces even if when are not actually attacking rebel forces or civilians. Yes, this may impose more of a short-term strain on the U.S. Navy and Air Force but it will save resources in the long run by shortening this conflict—and making good on Obama’s sweeping words.