The Western-led intervention in Libya has so far been a resounding success. Civilian lives have been saved in cities across the North African country, effectively fulfilling a United Nations mandate designed to address a worsening humanitarian crisis before it spiraled out of control. Despite some grumbling from American conservatives, the domestic response to U.S. involvement in Libya has been generally positive, proving that at least in the short term, President Obama made the right decision.
Unfortunately, the administration’s plan also seems remarkably shortsighted. Even after handing over control of the air campaign to NATO, critical questions must still be answered: Where should the international community draw the line in the extent of its intervention? Where do American forces fall into this equation?
The original U.N. Security Council resolution called for employing any means necessary to prevent civilian casualties in Libya. This task has thus far been successfully completed. But on the heels of this success, policymakers are already speculating that the removal of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi is a key element in the White House’s strategy. Yet these same policymakers state that they absolutely oppose putting boots on the ground to force Qaddafi out of Tripoli militarily. Obviously a false dichotomy is at work here.
To accurately address the Libyan civil war, the U.S. must first recognize that it cannot simultaneously argue for Qaddafi’s exit while being unwilling to provide the means to help the rebels make lasting tactical gains. The Libyan opposition is a ragtag fighting force acting without an apparent unified strategy and with little if any tactical training.
As the rebels are forced to spend another day retreating in the face of intense opposition from Qaddafi supporters, it’s becoming increasingly clear that U.S.-led airstrikes have done little more than limit Qaddafi’s ability to decisively end the war. Essentially, international intervention has set the stage for a stalemate that can only lead to a bloody, inconclusive civil war.
The United States has neither the political will nor the operational military capacity to break this stalemate unilaterally. The American military is overstretched as it is; putting a significant number of American troops in Libya could push our forces to the breaking point. The British also lack this capacity, though perhaps for different reasons; and despite all of Paris’ bluster, even France will not act alone to shift the conflict decisively in favor of the opposition.
Without the capacity or political will to have soldiers march to Tripoli, Western forces’ hands are virtually tied. The U.N. arms embargo rules out the idea of supplying the rebels with anything but the most basic weapons. With that said, there is little doubt that the U.S. has already moved to provide opposition forces with basic military material (note the recent photos from The New York Times showing rebels in digital camouflage which looks strikingly similar to the Army Combat Uniform pattern). Still, uniforms and small arms will not force Qaddafi from power.
There is little more the U.S. can do to affect the outcome of the Libyan civil war without significantly escalating the conflict and violating the mandate that our involvement originally helped to secure. With all of this in mind, it should be obvious that international intervention must stop now; there is nothing more that can be done to support the Libyan opposition without raising significant international outcry. The international community has succeeded in fulfilling its mandate to protect Libyan civilians. Our work there is done, and it needs to stay that way.
Andrew Mullikin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at [email protected]. BEHIND THE WIRE appears every other Thursday.
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