What Makes A War 'Dumb'?

03/31/2011 10:59 am ET | Updated May 31, 2011

"I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."

Those were the words Barack Obama spoke in 2002 as President Bush mobilized a coalition to take down the regime of Saddam Hussein. It was merely one line in the Iraq speech that helped propel Obama to the U.S. Senate and to the Presidency. And these words were why I joined the Veterans For Obama campaign effort in 2008. Granted, I was never a campaign insider but I did publish an editorial endorsement in the Orlando Sentinel a week before the election.

Candidate Obama had my vote well before his historic victory in Iowa caucuses. The following November, I voted primarily on one issue -- the Iraq War.

The infantry platoon I led into combat was one of the first to cross the Kuwaiti border into Iraq on the first day of the war in 2003. We were the very first to cross the bridge at the Army's crossing point over the Euphrates River. And we were the first to reach the tarmac of Saddam International Airport -- just days before the collapse of the Iraqi regime that, like Colonel Gaddafi's regime, terrorized its own people for decades.

Our mission in Iraq went according to plan until we reached the airport -- which represented the extent of our pre-war mission planning.

My unit was greeted with flowers and largely welcomed in communities during the weeks immediately following the fall of Saddam. What we didn't recognize was that, while Iraqis hated Saddam Hussein, they had become dependent on his regime in their daily lives. Thus, that dependency shifted to our military forces when we overthrew the regime.

Eight years later, we are still in Iraq. Nine years later, we are still in Afghanistan. And now we are promoting regime change in Libya? Needless to say, I am disillusioned.

If nothing else is clear, it is that regime change is neither easy, nor is it cheap. While I respect the intent behind the president's commitment in taking troops off the table, we might as well concede we don't want regime change if we are unwilling to acknowledge the potential costs to achieve the policy objective.

"Liberating" a country is relatively easy -- restoring order afterward is the hard part.

Iraq did not become a quagmire because of our supposed limited coalition or the lack of rationale for toppling the Hussein regime. Rather, Iraq became a quagmire because we vastly underestimated the challenge of regime change and failed to plan accordingly. We applied military assets designed to destroy, not to build. We lacked an integrated approach which could have utilized other government agencies with capabilities to facilitate a transition of governance. Apparently, we've learned the lessons about utilizing other "assets" in the regime change tool-kit, such as diplomacy. Still, we should not underestimate the security problem that will likely persist in a power vacuum if Gaddafi leaves power.

But let's take a moment to consider this challenge from a leadership standpoint.

There is a reason why Americans are unhappy about Libya and the president's leadership. We have seen this movie before in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regime change is expensive and inevitably comes at the cost of our blood and treasure. And we don't have confidence that Libya will play out differently.

In Libya, we are trying to support the rebels without ground troops because we don't want to get stuck "fixing" the country after the dictator falls. But is that possible? I don't think so. Libya would likely experience chaos as a result of a power vacuum. At that point, would NATO stand idle if more innocent civilians die? This is why I'm skeptical about taking ground troops off the table.

Two words -- "mission creep."

Make no mistake, the current "no-fly zone plus" is an air war against Gaddafi's forces. NATO is targeting combatants whether they threaten civilians or not. It is the first evidence of mission creep. Talk of arming the rebels is the next step in mission creep. So now, if the rebels in Libya overthrow Gaddafi, then it will be a direct result of our military intervention. We should accept that we already own the outcome in Libya.

The president has been somewhat ambiguous in describing our mission, such as the "no-fly zone plus" that effectively supports regime change. Yet, our stated mission is merely "to protect the people."

Is ambiguity a key feature of our strategy? Maybe the president is signaling to the Arab world, "America supports, but does not impose adoption of its values." This approach might actually make sense in attempting to guide, as opposed to force, a transition process to democracy. But we must still be capable of going the distance operationally -- with the necessary resources and national will.

Right now, we have neither the resources nor the national will to execute a regime change mission.

Don't get me wrong, I think Gaddafi is a despicable tyrant and should leave power. And when we finally witness the demise of this dictator, there could be a moment of opportunity to pull the opposing factions together and broker a transition of power -- something we failed to do in Iraq when the opportunity presented itself. But to achieve this desirable outcome, we must have a plan of action that is coherent and utilizes a broad set of tools that focuses both on security and humanitarian assistance.

Hopefully a diplomatic solution can be reached and Gaddafi leaves Libya voluntarily. But even in that case, I believe Libya will be susceptible to a protracted civil war and require a security force to stabilize the country.

Maybe we've saved a significant amount of civilian lives by intervening in Libya. We really don't know. Inevitably, though, we will continue to witness violence over time as Libya continues its civil war. This war will likely become even less unpopular as time goes on. Unfortunately, there are still greater challenges in the Middle East which more directly impact our national security.

I still consider myself a supporter of the president. At this point in time, I think everyone should be rooting for his successful leadership -- our country needs it right now.

Having served in combat, I can tell you that there are no good wars but there certainly are poorly planned wars. Poorly planned wars can quickly become bad wars. And bad wars are always dumb in hindsight.

Time will tell whether Libya will be thought of as a "dumb war."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ryan McDermott.