War Stories

Is Libya Like Kosovo?

Let’s hope so.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the  Libya conflict

A Libyan rebel stands atop a vehicle destroyed by coalition air strikes on March 20, 2011

It’s worth noting, four days into the air campaign against Libya, that we’re just four days into the air campaign against Libya.

On cable news, four days seems an eternity. Hence the vein-popping impatience for Qaddafi to crumble, the outrage that Obama isn’t doing something more quickly (just what isn’t quite clear), the heaving sighs over the coalition’s failure (after hours of meetings) to work out the precise procedures of command and control.

Yet as several Pentagon officials cautioned at the outset of this crisis, these things are complicated; they require coordination, which takes time. This fact of course inspired some of the more enthusiastic hawks to urge Obama to take action unilaterally—which might have been speedier in the short run but a disaster in the end.

The hand-wringing from all sides is reminiscent of NATO’s 1999 air war against Serbia, which was mounted to protect Kosovar citizens from the savagery of Slobodan Milosevic. President Bill Clinton’s decision to intervene in that internal war came at a much later point in the conflict than Barack Obama’s, after the dictator had inflicted far greater damage. Clinton sidestepped the U.N. Security Council knowing that Russia and China would veto a resolution, but he did go through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose member-states saw the campaign—the first time they’d waged war together in NATO’s half-century history—as a test of the alliance’s continued relevance in the post-Cold War era.

Clinton was hammered from liberals and conservatives for taking this multilateral approach, which they derided as “war by committee.” In his 2001 book Waging Modern War, Gen. Wesley Clark, who ran the air campaign as Supreme Allied Commander Europe, detailed the frustrations of fighting an alliance war—the endless squabbles over tactics, strategy, even which targets to strike.

Yet, Clark concluded, the results—an enduring victory, with Milosevic ousted and put on trial, the alliance renewed, and a postwar peacekeeping deployment that (however flawed) stopped the violence and sparked virtually no coalition casualties—could not have been achieved through a more “efficient” unilateral operation.

Clark made many mistakes during the campaign, not least in his expectation—which he voiced publicly—that Milosevic would surrender after a mere three days. In fact, the bombing went on for 11 weeks—as did the seething political attacks on Clinton (and Clark) for embarking on the scheme to begin with.

Who can say how long the air war over Libya will last, how fiercely it might escalate, or—this is the big question—what happens afterward?

President Obama has said that the operation’s current phase will last “days, not weeks,” but by this he means the phase at which U.S. forces continue to play the dominant role. (He didn’t make this point clearly enough, and so, after the war goes on for two weeks, as it almost certainly will, watch for the news shows to play that clip over and over as putative proof of Obama’s naiveté or deception.)

Some have scoffed at Obama’s claim that this is a multilateral campaign, noting that, on the first day, the United States fired 124 Tomahawk cruise missiles, while the British fired just two.

But sometimes public statements should be taken at face value. When a no-fly zone was first proposed, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that it would have to be preceded by an attack on Libya’s air-defense systems so that coalition pilots could then patrol the skies with minimal fear of getting shot down. At the start of the campaign, President Obama said that U.S. forces had “unique capabilities” that can clear the way for allied aircraft to enforce the U.N. resolution.

That is what the first day’s barrage was all about. Those “unique capabilities” consisted of long-range weapons that can hit targets, such as air-defense batteries, with precision—namely, the Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from four ships off Libya’s coast, and a number of Joint Direct Attack Munitions fired from three B-2 bombers. * No other country could have amassed that much accurate firepower in such concentrated salvos.

Now, as a result, Libya’s air defenses are pretty much obliterated, and the other countries’ air forces can patrol the area—and, in some cases, bomb and strafe Qaddafi’s ground forces, as some already have—with relative impunity.

Whose air forces do what, under what auspices, and for how long, are questions that the countries of NATO and the Arab League are meeting now to decide. Obama has said they’ll resolve their differences fairly quickly. Others predict privately that the mission’s military objectives will be accomplished fairly soon as well—that Qaddafi’s troops will retreat or be damaged to such a degree that the Libyan rebels can mount a counteroffensive on the ground.

But, again, the big question is: What then?

Will Qaddafi have to go? The mixed signals over this are not as contradictory as they may seem. U.S. policy is that, yes, he must give up power. However, the U.N. resolution, which authorized military action to protect Libyan civilians (and “civilian-populated areas”), does not call for regime change; nor, if it had, would the security council have passed it.

What this means is that U.S. military forces will do nothing in this operation to go after Qaddafi directly. However, in listing the kinds of targets that we can attack under the resolution, U.S. officials have mentioned “command and control facilities.” This is a broad term of art that can include everything from blast-hardened launch-control bunkers to a telephone on a commander’s desk—including (presumably) Qaddafi’s desk.

In fact, the missile that hit Qaddafi’s compound the first night was aimed explicitly at the section of the compound thought to include his headquarters. Under the U.N. resolution, this was a legitimate attack, whereas, say, dropping a bomb on his bedroom would not have been. If Qaddafi had been in the headquarters at the time … well, so it goes. (Such is, let us say, the flexibility of “command and control” as a target category; it is to war planners what “overhead” is to corporate accountants.)

But let’s say Qaddafi is out of the scene. What then?

It’s a fallacy—and should be a well-known one by now—that blowing off a tyrant’s lid will unleash some geyser of liberty. Many commentators have been wondering of late just who these Libyan rebels are, what they stand for, and what they’d do if they rose to power.

One disturbing note: According to a West Point study of the foreign fighters who joined the anti-American insurgency during the Iraq war, the largest number by far—on a per capita basis, twice as many as from any other country in the Arab-speaking world—came from Libya, specifically from eastern Libya, mainly from Benghazi and Darnah, the strongholds of the rebels we’re now protecting.

It may be that these same rebels will like us if our efforts help them overthrow Qaddafi. But that’s not a sure thing, and, in any case, it’s beside the point. Even if Libya’s new leaders carried copies of Thomas Paine in their rucksacks, they would find themselves reigning over a wasteland, and not just physically—a country bereft of democratic traditions, institutions, or the slenderest levers of a civil society. Someone’s going to have to step in and spend tens of billions of dollars and devote years or decades of hard effort, to helping the Libyan people develop such things—and to do so with the backing of a large police or military force to provide security in the meantime—or face the prospect that a nastier group of people, from within or outside, will take over and impose a different sort of social order, a new, perhaps more threatening, dictatorship.

The biggest flaw in U.S. strategy for the Iraq war was the failure to do any planning for postwar stabilization. This failure unleashed all the nightmares that followed. Libya is not Iraq. Obama’s motives for intervening in Libya were much different from George W. Bush’s motives for invading Iraq, and the level of this intervention is explicitly much lower—more, at least avowedly, in support of the European and Arab leaders who took the initiative and have more vital stakes in the outcome. But there are still lessons to be gleaned from Iraq’s postwar power vacuum and the chaos that ensued as a result.

Obama took such pains to make clear that the United States was playing a mere supporting role in the Libyan war—and even went ahead with a scheduled trip to South America to demonstrate that this war is not a major, all-consuming thing—in part to make clear that we wouldn’t be playing more than a supporting role after the war is over.

But who will? Who can? And shouldn’t someone have thought this through before the bombs started falling?

Correction, March 29, 2011: This article originally misstated the type of U.S. planes that could fire Joint Direct Attack Munitions. They are B-2 bombers, not B-52s. (Return to the corrected article.)