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Libya: A U.S. War by Any Other Name?

Libya: A U.S. War by Any Other Name?

By David Paul Kuhn - March 23, 2011

Of the first 124 Tomahawk missiles fired on Libya, U.S. forces fired 122.

The U.N. Security Council and the Arab League sanctioned this war. This was no "coalition of the willing." The world body willed this war. Barack Obama deliberated with allies. "We did not lead this, we did not engage in unilateral actions in any way," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday. America, the cowboy nation no more. But the fight still feels the same.

U.S. forces are currently directing this war. That will supposedly change, any day now. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters Sunday, "We will have a military role in the coalition, but we will not have the preeminent role." President Obama said Monday that allies will command the no-fly zone "in a matter of days and not a matter of weeks." Yet General Carter Ham, who directs the coalition campaign, told reporters the same day that "I would not put a date certain on" the transfer of command.

The United States is in charge of a war that was not its charge. A handoff needs two hands. England wanted NATO to take command. France noted objections. The Arab League opposes an entirely NATO command. Yet the Arab states are not in the fight. Tuesday, France proposed a steering committee that includes Arab states. So goes the bureaucracy of multilateral wars. Meanwhile, another day passes, and America leads another war. Command could soon shift. But the warriors might not shift with it.

The British and French pushed hardest for international intervention. Muammar el-Qaddafi threatened the mass murder of civilians. France and England won the Security Council's authorization. It was a new day. America was a "junior partner" in the walk-up to war.

Yet this is a very American war. Three B-2 stealth bombers flew over the weekend from Missouri's Whiteman Air Force Base to Misurata, Libya. Forty-five 2,000-pound bombs were dropped. The strike included more than a dozen American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets. Sunday's Tomahawk attack involved two U.S. destroyers, three U.S. submarines and only one British submarine. And no military action is truly surgical. An American F-15 crashed in Libya on Tuesday, though its crew survived and are safe.

Obama said Tuesday that the United States initially took command of the campaign because of its "unique capabilities." Translation: America is the only nation with the force to quickly mount this large force.

The French, Spaniards, Italians and Danes are assisting the United States in enforcing the no-fly zone. France's aircraft carrier is expected to soon participate. General Ham said that the United States handled only about half of Monday's 80 air strikes. That fact was meant to indicate the de-Americanization of the war. But half remains a significantly American war.

The United States still has about 50,000 soldiers in Iraq and 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. Three wars in three Muslim nations. It's the broadest global American military presence since the Second World War.

The candidate who opposed the Iraq war is now the president administering the Libyan war. Some of this goes with the territory. A political candidate doesn't have the power to give an order and prevent human suffering. A commander-in-chief sometimes does. It can work the other way around, too. Committing the United States to war is a momentous act. Candidate Bill Clinton wondered aloud while campaigning for George H.W. Bush's job why the United States wasn't doing more to end ethnic murder in the former Yugoslavia. But President Clinton didn't commit air power to stop the slaughter until mid-1995. Clinton never forgot the bungled 1993 Somali intervention. Somalia contributed to his decision not to intervene in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. By 1999, Clinton led a NATO force to defeat Slobodan Milosevic for similar acts. The Kosovo air strikes set a precedent for Libya.

No conflict is precisely its predecessor. Libya is different from Kosovo--and even more so from Iraq. Yet Iraq shaped Obama's candidacy. And there are similarities between the two. A tyrannical dictator? Check. Humanitarian grounds for intervention? Check. No clear and present danger to U.S. national security? Check.

Libya has a far smaller population than Iraq. The mission is far more modest. Not invasion. Not a land war. Critically, the United States does not own this war. No Pottery Barn rule shall rule. Libyan stability cannot be placed on American shoulders. That's a distinction of critical difference. The war against Iraq's dictator is not what killed most U.S. troops. It was the fight for peace. Initial victory was the easy part in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Obama administration is wary of another long war. General Ham made clear Monday that his mission could be achieved without the overthrow of Qaddafi.

Yet ownership of this war could become murky. As John F. Kennedy noted, "Victory has a 100 fathers, and defeat is an orphan." But quagmires and statements can also become orphans. There is already tension.

Turkey, a NATO member, expressed concern about allied strikes "outside the framework" of the U.N. mandate. That mandate passed because China and Russia withheld their veto. China has subsequently criticized the extent of western "military attacks" and defended Libya's sovereignty. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Monday that he was "concerned about the ease with which the decision to use force was taken" and the "steady trend" of U.S. intervention.

This Libyan operation is titled Odyssey Dawn. The word "odyssey" derives from Homer's tale of Odysseus. That epic voyage took a decade. It's taking longer in Afghanistan, as America's longest war carries on. Libya will not suffer Afghanistan's timeline or the gravity of Iraq's violence. Yet odysseys tend to have short dawns and long dusks. American forces did not declare this war. But how long will it be America's fight?

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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