What is America's *Goal* in Libya?

Update by Jeff 3/20/11 22:15: According to Jake Tapper, it now appears that SecDef Gates is warning against setting any goals for this action whatsoever. How’s that for clarity and sound military strategy?


Update by Jeff 3/20/11 18:10: The muddling continues, as it’s being reported that SecDef Gates, who initially opposed any action in Libya, is now opposing any action that would specifically target Qaddafi.

As you may have heard, the U.S. is now at war in Libya, leading a coalition of a dozen or so countries (including some nebulous group of “Arab nations” of which only Qatar will allow itself to be publicly named) in offshore SEAD strikes and anti-aircraft patrols against a country whose sole resources are oil and terrorism.  In this case, of course, there have been no presidential addresses to the nation explaining exactly what our rationale is for this action, and laying out our specific goals (contrast this to, to pick one example from the Iraq War run-up, President Bush’s statement to the nation explaining exactly why he was preparing to go to war there, and giving Saddam Hussein and his sons 72 hours to leave Iraq as a means of averting that war).  In fact, the president isn’t even on this continent right now; he’s in Rio, and he’s canceled any opportunities the press may have had to ask him questions about anything, including Libya.

That lack of explanation doesn’t appear to reach only to the American people themselves. Based on the statements of Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman, and of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen (whom you’d think would be a fairly important player in this action), Obama hasn’t bothered to tell the Senate or his highest military brass what the actual goal of our action in Libya is.


According to Mullen, the purpose of the multinational No Fly Zone over Libya is to “protect civilians and provide for humanitarian support.” To that end, Mullen said, the military participants hope force Qaddafi’s troops to “withdraw to their garrisons” to allow for that distribution of humanitarian aid. Surely, though, that’s not the entirety of the goal…is it? As in, once Qaddafi’s tanks and trucks are safely parked back in their motor pools, we’ll declare victory and sail away once again from the Shores of Tripoli?

The short answer is, nobody seems to know. As Candi Crowley pointed out on CNN this morning (yeah, I know, but I was on a plane and there were no other news channels available), both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, among others, have declared that Qaddafi must be removed from the position he’s held for the last 42 years. However, if this is the actual goal of the military operations in which we are now participating, somebody seems to have forgotten to pass that information along to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – who, when asked what the goal was after Qaddafi’s forces have “withdrawn to their garrisons,” plead ignorance about the “political” goals or aspects of the action in Libya.

So, can Qaddafi keep his title, his position, and his country simply by calling off the dogs he’s set on his own people? It sure sounds like it, or not like it, depending on who you ask and what time of day it is.

Senators McCain (R-AZ) and Lieberman (I-CT) seem similarly confused, though they both stated they hope the action in Libya will result in Qaddafi’s removal (though they were very vague about their preferred means reaching that goal). McCain said this morning that Qaddafi had to be deposed in order for the mission to be called a success, a statement with which Lieberman not only agreed, but about which he said that, if the President of the United States said Qaddafi has to go and he doesn’t, then Obama’s (and America’s) credibility is shot.  Those sounds like some pretty high stakes there, yet – again – nobody seems to know whether the goal of this entire exercise is Qaddafi’s removal or not.


McCain did note that allowing Qaddafi to remain in his position would send a message to other Arab dictators that the correct course of action to take in the face of anti-regime protests is to “kill as many as you can in order to stay in power.” Lieberman concurred, warning that the so-called “Arab Spring” could meet a premature end (though today’s passage of a national referendum in Egypt which paves the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to rise to political power should once again warn westerners about getting prematurely excited about such “spring” events as those we’ve been witnessing over the last two months).

McCain also unleashed a sharply critical salvo at Obama for waiting too long for the UN and not acting on Libya far sooner, at very least by moving an aircraft carrier into position in the Mediterranean “a couple weeks ago.” McCain too, though, was nebulous about what means would be acceptable in the effort to depose the dress-wearing dictator, saying, “a couple weeks ago [a No Fly Zone alone] would’ve been enough,” but “now it’s not enough” – but, regardless, “no ground troops” should be committed to Libya. Enough to do what? Did that last sentence make any sense to you? Me either, yet that’s what the man said this morning. Such incoherence by a senior elected official in the face of a third simultaneous war being embarked upon by his nation is seldom encouraging.

Immediately after uttering the aforementioned incoherent statement about it being too late for just an NFZ to accomplish whatever the goal of our action is in Libya, but still being against ground troops there, McCain threw down a rhetorical gauntlet, saying that “the most mightiest [sic] nation in the world” is now matched against a “third or fourth-rate power,” and that he is “confident we can prevail.” I’m sure our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines thank you for your confidence, Senator, but allow me to ask: What is it that we’re so confident we can accomplish here? Does anybody know?


With respect to accomplishing anything in Libya, the US and its coalition, which apparently includes the war version of sports’ infamous “players to be named later” from the Arab world, is not in as strong a position as McCain, Lieberman, and apparently Obama seem to think that it is.

This can be seen in the resistance to putting “boots on the ground” in North Africa.  It is a truth of warfare that air power alone – or even standoff weaponry alone – cannot win wars unless complete obliteration of the opposing territory is an acceptable outcome and an acceptable definition of “victory.”  Does anybody remember the Iraq War being won through the “Shock and Awe” campaign alone? Of course not. People must be present on the ground to fight, and to facilitate offensive standoff activity by providing intelligence, direction, and guidance to those on ships, in cockpits, and in command centers elsewhere.

If the coalition’s only goal is to enforce a No Fly Zone, then boots on the ground may not be necessary – but preventing Qaddafi’s air forces, such as they are, from reaching the skies will do very little when it’s the dictator’s armor and soldiers who are doing so much of the terrorizing and killing.  Are we willing to simply enforce the freedom of the skies over Libya while Qaddafi continues to slaughter his own people?

Adding a significant air-to-ground component to this action runs huge risks, particularly without troops on the ground. Yes, the US has ultra-accurate weaponry, including GPS-guided bombs that can be accurate to within a single meter – but without intelligence about where that targeted meter should be, they are next to useless.  Laser- and IR-guided bombs are similarly imprecise without a controller on the ground marking targets for these weapons. Further, given Libya’s makeup – it is constituted largely of desert with a small number of large cities – the majority of actual fighting is destined to take place in urban terrain, which is incredibly difficult and dangerous terrain in which to utilize standoff weapons without ground-level intel and terminal attack controllers.


Further, utilizing such weaponry in urban settings plays directly into the hands of our opponents PR-wise, as well. We’ve all seen it before, in America’s wars and in Israel’s: a guided bomb is dropped, and the next thing you know the enemy is claiming that women and children were killed, and is producing pictures to “prove” it. Sometimes this is true; sometimes it’s a result of the use of “human shields”; and sometimes it’s propaganda. Regardless of which category any instance fits into, the result is a disastrous optic event which plays to those in that part of the world, and here at home, who are already predisposed to think the worst of the West and its military activities.

Finally, McCain also made an interesting comment today about the “other capabilities” the US would make use of once it relinquished its role as leader of the coalition (a development Mullen spoke to repeatedly, but which seems, to put it mildly, less than realistic). McCain said the US can engage in “jamming [Qaddafi’s] communications” – naturally – and in “getting some people trained.”

“Getting some people trained.” That, as I’m sure the Senator knows, doesn’t happen from a TLAM launch platform or from the cockpit of an F-15E or F-16CJ; it happens on the ground. This, of course, brings us back to a question I asked in the wake of the UNSC Resolution’s passage: What, exactly, constitutes a “ground troop” to those who make our military decisions (top among whom is President Obama)?  Are we really going to risk not only our pilots for a goal which nobody seems to know or understand, but our Special Forces as well (and, if anybody in the chain of command has half a brain, the aforementioned terminal controllers who absolutely should be accompanying SF into the country), who are already being worked beyond the limits of most humans’ ability in Iraq, Afghanistan, and several other locations around the globe?


The answer to that one seems obvious: of course we are. The answer to the more important question, though – what on earth is the goal of our action in Libya, and how will we know when it’s been achieved? – is, like the truth in X-Files, still out there. I wish I had confidence that the Chief Decider, President Obama, had the slightest clue what that answer was. However, if he does in fact know, he apparently isn’t telling anybody else, including the highest-ranking general in his own military.

How’s that for a confidence-builder?


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