Yesterday, American B-2 stealth bombers, F-16s, F-15s, and Harrier attack jets bombed both Libyan air and ground defenses including Colonel Muammar Qadhafi's massive residential compound in Tripoli. "We judge these strikes to have been very effective in significantly degrading the regime's air defense capability," Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday.
But the fact that these operations could be successfully undertaken by coalition forces was never in doubt. The problem is that these operations by themselves will not be decisive in either eliminating the regime or fully protecting civilians. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday that the U.S. expects to turn control of the Libya military mission over to a coalition (headed by the French? the British? or by NATO?) "in a matter of days." What happens if Qadhafi is still in power by that time? The United Nations mandate authorizing these strikes is extremely broad, permitting anything but "occupying" Libya. The coalition has yet to state specific goals for the operation. What does protecting civilians mean?
Qadhafi's next move will be to try and exploit the ambiguity the Obama Administration's leadership failure has created. Within hours of the attack there were already signs that support from the Arab League was weakening. "What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians," said Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. These fissures will only grow if Qadhafi retains power and operations become protracted.
A simple and quick decisive outcome in Libya is unlikely. If the U.S. wants to safeguard its interests in the region, it is going to need a long-term strategy. The U.S. must: 1) Identify, aid, and muster support for a legitimate opposition that is free of terrorist elements; 2) Support responsible efforts to isolate the regime in Tripoli; 3) Support humanitarian operations to safeguard the lives of innocents; and 4) Prevent the regime from reacquiring weapons of mass destruction technologies, supporting international terrorism, or establishing terrorist sanctuaries in the country.
Conditions could always change (e.g. Qadhafi could sponsor another terrorist attack on the U.S.), but the U.S. contribution must be limited to avoid mission creep. Otherwise, a once limited U.S. involvement could grow into something more costly like Somalia and Lebanon. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan there simply are no vital American interests that would justify wider intervention.
Libya is just one country in a region going through world-historical transformation. The U.S. needs proactive long-term strategies that look ahead of events rather than trail them. Unfortunately we are getting the exact opposite from our Commander in Chief. President Obama is putting the U.S. military to work at the behest of the world rather than leading the world. Brit Hume accurately described this yesterday: "This is not leadership, this is followership." In two major areas now the President has voted "present" in the last two weeks: on the budget, where he is AWOL, and on Libya, where he has purposely chosen to follow even as our troops do the heavy lifting.