WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration lacks a clear strategy in Libya and risks botching the allied air attacks if it doesn’t do more to help rebel forces defeat Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal regime, according to a conservative critique of the first 48 hours of Operation Odyssey Dawn.
In a briefing whose points are sure to be echoed by hawkish Republicans in Congress in the coming days, analysts at the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the opening salvos of the U.S.-led air attacks were impressive but the long-term objective remains unclear.
Michael Singh, who worked on Middle East policy in President George W. Bush’s White House, noted that when President Obama previously called for Gaddafi’s exit, he took no action. Now that U.S. forces are leading a coalition to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, Obama is insisting he isn’t in it for regime change.
The President “traded the effectiveness of early action for political cover,” Singh said, noting Obama waited until the Arab League asked Western nations to intervene before pushing for the United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized military action. And now that bombs are falling, Singh said, the administration is itching to get out in “days, not weeks” and turn the operation over to France, Britain and other allies.
In a letter to congressional leaders released Monday, the president said U.S. forces “are conducting a limited and well-defined mission in support of international efforts to protect civilians and prevent a humanitarian disaster.” He added that the United States will “seek a rapid, but responsible, transition of operations to coalition, regional, or international organizations”
“How does that look?” Singh asked, calling the U.S. role “intervention on the cheap” and accusing Obama of “rejecting leadership on principle” instead of continuing the traditional U.S. role as first among nations. While allowing European and Arab nations to take the lead may be fine militarily and from a cost standpoint, politically it projects “a sense of diminishing U.S. influence more broadly.”
Jeffrey White, a retired military intelligence officer with wide experience in the Middle East, warned, “There is no reward without risk. If Gaddafi must go, then we must accept some risk to make that happen.”
He said half-measures will allow Gaddafi’s forces to dig in and maintain their grip in western Libya even if the area around Benghazi falls to the rebels. White said that while the initial operation has given rebels an important psychological boost, that isn’t enough. He said the U.S. and coalition governments must:
-- Target senior leaders in the regime even if air strikes don’t seek out Gaddafi himself. “In most wars, the enemy leadership is a legitimate target,” he said, yet so far attacks have not gone after them.
-- “Agressively” arm rebel forces. Even as the Pentagon said it was not providing air cover for the rebel forces, White said they should be given anti-tank and other weapons, training, intelligence and other support to help them plan and carry out an offensive against government forces.
White said Gaddafi’s ability to attack opposition forces from the air is “over” but fighting is not. Still to come is close fighting in urban areas as regime forces hunker down amid the rebels.
“The war is not over. It doesn’t look like its going to end quickly or even decisively,” White said. Much will depend, he said, on how aggressively the coalition acts.
“Is this really a coalition of the marginally willing?” he asked. “Do they want to do just enough, not too much? We’re seeing some indications of that.”