Can U.S. Keep From Getting Bogged Down In Libya?

Apr 14, 2011

Military intervention in Libya was supposed to be a quick mission: Use missiles and airstrikes to knock out Moammar Gadhafi's firepower and prevent attacks on civilians. Nearly a month in, Libyan rebels and government troops are stalemated and the NATO-led coalition is showing strain.

Some analysts predict the fighting in Libya could drag on for years. The U.S. and other nations are considering deepening their involvement by supplying the opposition with weapons and even ground forces. And if Gadhafi's regime falls, the coalition would presumably need to help a new government find its footing and rebuild infrastructure.

"If you want to achieve any results with failed or broken states, you have to help such countries build institutions, security, government capacity and their economy," said Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"But if you do that, you bind yourself in ways that will almost guarantee an open-ended commitment," Cordesman said. "The problem is to find the right balance, and it is all too clear we do not yet have that skill set."

The American contribution in Libya has already cost taxpayers more than $600 million at last count. So how does the U.S. avoid being drawn into a possible quagmire? NPR spoke to several experts who offered strategies to keep from getting in too deep.

Have Clear Goals, But Remain Flexible

Obama has vowed that by handing the reins to NATO, the "risk and cost of this operation — to our military and to American taxpayers" — would be kept in check. While Operation Unified Protector is in no immediate danger of going the same way as Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, public concern has begun to show.

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 57 percent of respondents said they thought military action in Libya "lacks a clear goal."

Shortly after the air campaign began March 19, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) wrote a letter to Obama stating that he and others were troubled that U.S. forces were committed "without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America's role is in achieving that mission."

James Helis, a 30-year military veteran who served in Afghanistan and now heads the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said that to answer such criticism, it's important for U.S. policy planners "to draw lines and say these are things we are going to do and these are the things we're not going to do."

In Libya, for example, Obama ruled out ground troops but also declared that "we'll use air power, humanitarian assistance, economic and diplomatic pressure to isolate Gadhafi," Helis said.

Failure to set or adhere to clearly defined goals can lead to mission creep.

A quintessential example is the 1982-84 deployment of U.S. Marines to Beirut, Lebanon, said retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

What began as a peacekeeping mission after Israel invaded its northern neighbor morphed into a situation where the Marines essentially were used as leverage in Lebanon's civil war, he said, making them a target. On Oct. 23, 1983, a Hezbollah suicide bomber rammed a truck packed with explosives into the Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport.

"President Reagan sent in peacekeepers for this very ill-defined mission, and 241 service members ended up getting killed," he said.

By contrast, the first Gulf War — Operation Desert Storm — was an example of military goals being too well-defined, with no flexibility. The war ended with orders from the White House not to occupy Baghdad or try to capture Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, leaving a problematic dictator in charge for 12 more years.

Desert Storm was "a situation where the U.S. had clear goals and was in the end criticized for hewing too closely to them," said Daniel Byman, director of the left-leaning Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He said the very nature of limits placed on so-called limited war — such as that in Libya — means "you will miss opportunities," such as taking out Hussein in 1991.

Apply Pressure On All Fronts, Not Just Militarily

The U.S. has frozen Gadhafi's assets and has tried to isolate him politically in addition to bombarding his air defenses and hitting his ground troops. It could prove a slow process, but there is past precedent for success.

The 1999 NATO operation in support of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic applied such a multipronged approach, Byman said.

Milosevic "thought NATO would get tired and quit or that Moscow would bail him out," he said. "When Russia was finally persuaded to abandon him, it was over."

Helis of the U.S. Army War College agreed that while air and missile strikes had a major impact, it was the diplomatic pressure that gave Milosevic the final shove.

"The military part always gets the most attention, but other elements are just as important," Helis said, adding that in the case of Kosovo, "the strategy would not work unless you use them all."

Air Power Might Not Be Enough

Advanced U.S. fighter planes and precision cruise missiles have made the option of an air campaign more appealing for American presidents and policy planners. But recent history has shown that if regime change is the goal, boots on the ground are usually necessary.

Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it's a vital lesson and one the U.S. has to keep rediscovering.

"Very frequently [air power] is not going to be enough," Donnelly said. "But we still tend to think we can apply it discretely and won't suffer any losses. It also has appeal because we believe it is morally proportionate — a limited and precise use of force."

In Libya, NATO-led airstrikes have helped prevent government troops from destroying the rebel force but have failed to topple Gadhafi. The result so far is something that looks like a stalemate, Boston University's Bacevich said.

"There may not be a decisive outcome any time in the foreseeable future," he said. "In that sense, Libya could end up looking like Afghanistan or Iraq."

Don't Rush To Exit, And Understand The Limits of Power

Even before military forces are committed, there will be discussion of an exit strategy. Civilian and military strategists may want a road map that leads to an end of combat, but it's not entirely realistic to think the situation on the ground will stay predictable enough to make that possible, Donnelly said.

"If you think of each war in isolation, then you tend to go for exit strategies and end games and things like that," he said. "If you think of having a strategic interest in the balance of power in the greater Middle East, then these are campaigns in the larger picture.

"Ultimately, our test should be the ability to stay and not get shot at — not our ability to exit," Donnelly said.

Helis said it's important to remember that "just because something takes a long time does not make it a quagmire. A lot of situations don't lend themselves to quick solutions."

If the U.S. wants stability in a particular region — increasingly a goal in preventing the spread of terrorism — then some level of nation-building or institution-building is usually necessary, said Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Since World War II, "limited war" has been the rule rather than the exception, and as such, the U.S. must be willing to accept limited results, he said.

"Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose," Cordesman said. "Libya is a game where the stakes are relatively low. The rebels were already there when we started to intervene. If they win, that's great; if they don't, then we can live with the outcome." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit