So, What Happened Over The Weekend?

Ed Morrissey:

NBC has a fairly comprehensive report on the American attack on Libyan forces this morning, complete with totals thus far on cruise missiles (114 of them) and attacks by stealth bombers on air-defense systems, with 20 of those targeted. Military airstrips around the country have been bombed as well, up to 40 of them. Libya claims that 48 people have died as a result of those attacks, and Moammar Gaddafi gave the usual warning to the Muslim world that this was the start of a “crusader war” against an Arab nation. One piece of news might raise eyebrows — the US has sent fighter jets from Sicily to attack Gaddafi’s ground forces around Benghazi

That would seem to go beyond the UN mandate for a no-fly zone. The Pentagon tells NBC that their interpretation of the mandate is that they need to protect civilians, an interpretation that would leave practically no option off the table. Even without considering a ground invasion, it could mean that the US could attack Tripoli or practically any target they wish from the air or through off-shore cruise missiles. As Jim Miklaszewski reports, it looks as though the intent now is to utterly destroy Gaddafi’s army in an attempt to force him into retreat.

Not for nothing, but wasn’t that more or less our strategy in Iraq in 1990? We had a lot more firepower on target in that case, and it still took a ground invasion to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait — and that wasn’t his own territory, either. Had we done this four weeks ago, we could have protected a status quo, de facto liberation of Benghazi and other areas of Libya. Now, the Libyan position is so advanced that Gaddafi can likely abandon his armor in the city and reduce the rebels to destruction. It will just take a little longer. The time to stop Gaddafi from seizing Benghazi and stomping out the rebellion was when Gaddafi was bottled up in Tripoli.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

President Obama’s decision to join an international military intervention in Libya has met with a largely negative response in the United States across the political spectrum. Critics correctly point to a wide range of problems with the intervention: the absence of any clear planning for what comes after Qaddafi or for what might happen if there is an extended stalemate, doubts about the opposition, the White House’s ignoring of Congress and limited explanations to the American public, the selectivity bias in going to war for Libya while ignoring Bahrain and Yemen, the distraction from other urgent issues.  I have laid out my own reservations about the intervention here and here.

This emerging consensus misses some extremely important context, however. Libya matters to the United States not for its oil or intrinsic importance, but because it has been a key part of the rapidly evolving transformation of the Arab world.  For Arab protestors and regimes alike, Gaddafi’s bloody response to the emerging Libyan protest movement had become a litmus test for the future of the Arab revolution.  If Gaddafi succeeded in snuffing out the challenge by force without a meaningful response from the United States, Europe and the international community then that would have been interpreted as a green light for all other leaders to employ similar tactics. The strong international response, first with the tough targeted sanctions package brokered by the United States at the United Nations and now with the military intervention, has the potential to restrain those regimes from unleashing the hounds of war and to encourage the energized citizenry of the region to redouble their efforts to bring about change. This regional context may not be enough to justify the Libya intervention, but I believe it is essential for understanding the logic and stakes of the intervention by the U.S. and its allies.

Libya’s degeneration from protest movement into civil war has been at the center of the Arab public sphere for the last month. It is not an invention of the Obama administration, David Cameron or Nikolas Sarkozy.  Al-Jazeera has been covering events in Libya extremely closely, even before it tragically lost one of its veteran cameramen to Qaddafi’s forces, and has placed it at the center of the evolving narrative of Arab uprisings.  Over the last month I have heard personally or read comments from an enormous number of Arab activists and protest organizers and intellectuals from across the region that events in Libya would directly affect their own willingness to challenge their regimes. The centrality of Libya to the Arab transformation undermines arguments  that Libya is not particularly important to the U.S. (it is, because it affects the entire region) or that Libya doesn’t matter more than, say, Cote D’Ivoire (which is also horrible but lacks the broader regional impact).

The centrality of Libya to the Arab public sphere and to al-Jazeera carries a less attractive underside, though.  The focus on Libya has gone hand in hand with al-Jazeera’s relative inattention to next-door Bahrain, where a GCC/Saudi  intervention has helped to brutally beat back a protest movement and tried to cast it as a sectarian, Iranian conspiracy rather than as part of the narrative of Arab popular uprisings.  It has also distracted attention from Yemen, where rolling protests and mass government defections might finally today be bringing down the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime. The TV cameras have also largely moved on from the urgent issues surrounding the ongoing transitions in Tunisia and Egypt. Cynics might argue that the GCC and Arab League have been willing to support the intervention in Libya for precisely that reason, to keep the West distracted from their own depradations.

Finally, as I warned last week, Arab support for an intervention against Qaddafi to protect the Libyan people rapidly begins to fray when the action includes Western bombing of an Arab country. It should surprise nobody that the bombing campaign has triggered anger among a significant portion of the Arab public, which is still powerfully shaped by the Iraq war and aggrieved by perceived double standards (one of the most common lines in Arab debates right now is “where was the No Fly Zone over Gaza?”).  Amr Moussa’s flip-flopping on the Arab League’s stance towards the intervention should be seen as part of that tension between the desire to help the Libyan people and continuing suspicion of Western motives.  Skeptical voices matter too —  ignoring or ridiculing influential or representative voices simply because their message is unpalatable is a mistake too often made in this part of the world.

Amy Davidson at The New Yorker:

What are we doing in Libya? “Helping” is not a sufficient answer. President Obama said that, if we didn’t act, “many thousands could die…. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered.” But that is a motive, a desire—not a plan. Obama also said that America wouldn’t be leading operation Odyssey Dawn, just helping: our allies, particularly the French and British, had this one, and the Arab League would help by cheering. By Sunday, though, there was division in the Arab League, and there was something iffy to start with about making Nicolas Sarkozy the point man on anything. (One of the many, many things I wish I understood was what role French elections played in all of this.) Could Congress and the American people have maybe helped the Obama Administration think this one through?

Members of the Administration, including Tom Donilon, the national-security adviser, and Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, keep repeating the phrase “days, not weeks.” But what they are referring to is not the length of the operation but of America’s “leadership” of it. Who will take over? There is more clarity on that point than on the question of who will take over Libya if Qaddafi leaves, but that’s a pretty low bar: as Philip Gourevitch points out in his pointed summary of the questions attending this operation, we have no idea. Hillary Clinton talked about people around Qaddafi deciding to do something—the eternal desire for the convenient coup. Do we care who the plotters are?

Another thing that more people perhaps should have been clear about was the extent of Odyssey Dawn. The Times spoke of discomfort at how it had gone beyond a “simple ‘no-fly zone.’ ” But, despite the blank, pristine quality of the term, imposing a no-fly zone is not a simple, or clean and bloodless, thing, as if one simply turned a switch and the air cleared out. Pentagon spokesmen talked about hitting anti-aircraft installations, aviation centers, and “communication nodes.” Empty skies require rubble on the ground.

Lexington at The Economist:

For what it is worth, I welcome the fact that the world at last seems willing to exercise its so-called “duty to protect” people at risk from their own governments. The failures to do so in Rwanda and Darfur and so many other charnel houses is a blot on its conscience that will never be erased. But there is no escaping the fact that this new entanglement was decided upon behind closed doors at the UN and with very little public debate here in the United States. None of this will matter if the end comes quickly. But if things go wrong and America is drawn deeper in, the domestic consequences for the president could be far-reaching.

Tim Carney at The Washington Examiner:

At once presumptuous and flippant, President Obama used a Saturday audio recording from Brazil to inform Americans he had authorized a third war — a war in which America’s role is unclear and the stated objectives are muddled.

Setting aside the wisdom of the intervention, Obama’s entry into Libya’s civil war is troubling on at least five counts. First is the legal and constitutional question. Second is the manner of Obama’s announcement. Third is the complete disregard for public opinion and lack of debate. Fourth is the unclear role the United States will play in this coalition. Fifth is the lack of a clear endgame. Compounding all these problems is the lack of trust created by Obama’s record of deception.

“Today, I authorized the armed forces of the United States to begin a limited military action in Libya,” the president said. For him it was self-evident he had such authority. He gave no hint he would seek even ex post facto congressional approval. In fact, he never once mentioned Congress.

Since World War II, the executive branch has steadily grabbed more war powers, and Congress has supinely acquiesced. Truman, Johnson, Reagan, Clinton and Bush all fought wars without a formal declaration, but at least Bush used force only after Congress authorized it.

And, once more, the president’s actions belie his words on the campaign trail. In late 2007, candidate Obama told the Boston Globe, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

There is no claim that Moammar Gadhafi poses a threat to the United States. But asking President Obama to explain his change of heart would be a fruitless exercise. This is a president who has repeatedly shredded the clear meaning of words in order to deny breaking promises he has clearly broken — consider his continued blatant falsehoods on tax increases and his hiring of lobbyists.

James Fallows:

Count me among those very skeptical of how this commitment was made and where it might lead.

How it was made: it cannot reassure anyone who cares about America’s viability as a republic that it is entering another war with essentially zero Congressional consultation or “buy-in,” and with very little serious debate outside the Executive Branch itself. And there the debate was, apparently, mostly about changing the President’s own mind. I recognize that there are times when national safety requires an Administration to respond quickly, without enduring the posturing and institutionalized dysfunction that is the modern Congress. Without going through all the arguments, I assert that this is not such a moment. To be more precise: the Administration has not made the public case that the humanitarian and strategic stakes in Libya are so unique as to compel intervention there (even as part of a coalition), versus the many other injustices and tragedies we deplore but do not go to war to prevent. I can think of several examples in my current part of the world.

I didn’t like the “shut up and leave it to us” mode of foreign policy when carried out by people I generally disagreed with, in the Bush-Cheney era. I don’t like it when it’s carried out by people I generally agree with, in this Administration.

Where it might lead: The most predictable failure in modern American military policy has been the reluctance to ask, And what happens then? We invade Iraq to push Saddam Hussein from power. Good. What happens then? Obama increases our commitment in Afghanistan and says that “success” depends on the formation of a legitimate, honest Afghan government on a certain timetable. The deadline passes. What happens then? One reason why Pentagon officials, as opposed to many politicians, have generally been cool to the idea of “preventive” strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities is that many have gone through the exercise of asking, What happens then?

Launching air strikes is the easiest, most exciting, and most dependably successful stage of a modern war, from the US / Western perspective. TV coverage is wall-to-wall and awestruck. The tech advantages are all on our side. Few Americans, or none at all, are hurt. It takes a while to see who is hurt on the ground.

But after this spectacular first stage of air war, what happens then? If the airstrikes persuade Qaddafi and his forces just to quit, great! But what if they don’t? What happens when a bomb lands in the “wrong” place? As one inevitably will. When Arab League supporters of the effort see emerging “flaws” and “abuses” in its execution? As they will. When the fighting goes on and the casualties mount up and a commitment meant to be “days, not weeks” cannot “decently” be abandoned, after mere days, with so many lives newly at stake? When the French, the Brits, and other allies reach the end of their military resources — or their domestic support — and more of the work naturally shifts to the country with more weapons than the rest of the world combined?  I usually do not agree with Peggy Noonan, but I think she is exactly right in her recent warning* about how much easier it is to get into a war than ever to get out. I agree more often with Andrew Sullivan, and I share his frequently expressed recent hopes that this goes well but cautions about why it might not. (Jeffrey Goldberg has asked a set of similar questions, here.)

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

So let’s review: No clear national or even humanitarian interest for military intervention. Intervening well past the point where our intervention can have a decisive effect. And finally, intervening under circumstances in which the reviled autocrat seems to hold the strategic initiative against us. This all strikes me as a very bad footing to go in on.

And this doesn’t even get us to this being the third concurrent war in a Muslim nation and the second in an Arab one. Or the fact that the controversial baggage from those two wars we carry into this one, taking ownership of it, introducing a layer of ‘The West versus lands of Islam’ drama to this basically domestic situation and giving Qaddafi himself or perhaps one of his sons the ability to actually start mobilization some public or international opinion against us.

I can imagine many of the criticisms of the points I’ve made. And listening to them I think I’d find myself agreeing in general with a lot of it. But it strikes me as a mess, poorly conceived, ginned up by folks with their own weird agendas, carried out at a point well past the point that it was going to accomplish anything. Just all really bad.

Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:

As the United Nations-sanctioned war against Libya moves into its third day, no U.S., French or British aircraft have been shot down by Libyan air defenses. Part of the credit should go to the Navy’s new jammer, which is making its combat debut in Operation Odyssey Dawn. But the jammer isn’t just fritzing Moammar Gadhafi’s missiles, it’s going after his tanks.

Vice Adm. Bill Gortney told the media on Sunday that the EA-18G Growler, a Boeing production, provided electronic warfare support to the coalition’s attacks on Libya. That’s the first combat mission for the Growler, which will replace the Navy’s Prowler jamming fleet. Only Gortney added a twist: not only did the Growler go after Libya’s surface-to-air missiles, it helped the coalition conduct air strikes on loyalist ground forces going after rebel strongholds.

According to Gortney, coalition air strikes “halted” the march of pro-Gadhafi troops 10 miles south of Benghazi, thanks to French, British and U.S. planes — including the Marine Corps’ Harrier jump jet — thanks in part to Growler support. There’s no word yet on whether the Growler’s jamming functions disrupted any missiles that the pro-Gadhafi forces carried, or fried any communications the Libyan loyalists attempted to make back to their command. But Robert Wall of Aviation Week notes that the continued “risk from pop-up surface to air missile firings” prompts the need for Growlers above Libya.

And expect the Growler to keep up the pressure. The Pentagon plans to transfer control of Odyssey Dawn from Gen. Carter Ham and U.S. Africa Command to an as yet undetermined multinational command entity — at which point, the U.S. is expected to take a backseat in combat missions. But it’ll continue to contribute “unique capabilities” to the Libya mission. Namely, Gortney specified, “specialty electronic airplanes” such as the Growler. (And refueling tankers, spy planes, cargo haulers and command n’ control aircraft.) No wonder Defense Secretary Robert Gates hearts it so much.

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