The reluctance of many Americans to recognize that we are not in charge of the coalition effort in Libya has been remarkable to watch. Few (save the Fox News Sunday talking heads this morning) have been interested in the fact that French forces took the lead with the first attacks yesterday. More importantly, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first national leader to announce the action to the public and frame it in political context.
Prior to our own first strikes, there were none of the extensive Pentagon briefings, Congressional deliberations, or presidential statements we’ve come to expect over the last 20 years with the operations in Somalia, Iraq, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Bob Gates didn’t speak to the Libya operation at all in the wake of the UN vote, or before the strikes began on Saturday. The public was not advised of the command relationships for the operation until after the first Tomahawks were launched. Although individual members of Congress had spoken in favor of a no-fly zone over the last few weeks, the president requested no specific authorization for the use of force against Libya, and presented no concrete plan to Congress with explicit objectives.
It has therefore been remarkable to observe the MSM’s unquestioning acceptance of all these events. Without the slightest evidence that President Obama has done the minimum required of a leader – set objectives for the coalition, and scope the operation – the media bustled in after the fact, once information began to trickle out to the public, to proclaim that the US must obviously be in charge.
The American military has the facilities and experience to assume tactical direction of the operation, and that appears to be what has shaken out. That doesn’t mean we are in charge from the standpoint of policy or strategy. There is an enormous difference between our public finding out about the command assignments second-hand, through the news media, and the communication practices of the last seven presidents, which were direct, explicit, involved, and responsible. We haven’t had an administration even close to this coy about the use of force since Lyndon Johnson’s.
Don’t try to make this action fit the outlines of what we’ve been accustomed to from the presidents of the last 40 years. The reason it doesn’t look like America is in charge is that, for the purposes that matter, we’re not. Obama is not doing what previous presidents have done – and that’s why it looks different to the public.
It’s a bad practice to use military force where the objectives are murky, and multiple “partners” in the operation have placed different interpretations on them. As Ed Morrissey notes at Hot Air, the Arab League, which thumped hard for the no-fly zone, has already come out criticizing the coalition for exceeding its UN mandate with the attacks on Qaddafi’s armored forces near Benghazi. The first of those attacks were mounted by the French, although Sarkozy has been clear that regime-change is not his objective. David Cameron of the UK does favor regime-change, however, and will probably continue to press for it, considering that his government has now basically burned its bridges with Qaddafi. The British have had major petroleum interests in Libya; if Qaddafi remains in power, Libya’s resources will be closed to the British oil and gas industry.
Meanwhile, the African Union – some of whose members have troops volunteering with Qaddafi – has deplored the coalition intervention and plans to meet with Qaddafi as early as Monday to seek a political resolution. Qaddafi is not without friends, as indicated by the reports of arms shipments to him from Syria and Belarus.
None of these factors would necessarily be a showstopper if the US had a clear objective, with buy-in from our coalition partners. But we don’t. Obama has spoken only of a defensive, open-ended condition to be achieved – Qaddafi not shedding his people’s blood – and a limit to the material level of US engagement: no ground troops. Neither of these is what the Vietnam-educated US military came to call an “endstate”: a set of political objectives, the achievement of which would end the need for combat.
We may get lucky. There’s no predicting luck, and Americans would do well to pray that Qaddafi exits the picture in one way or another, which would change the nature of the problem. But if that does happen, it will unquestionably be luck that brings it about.
The void in strategic communication from the administration is what matters here. When such communication is present, US policy – well-founded or otherwise – is being executed by American forces. Even Carter and Clinton got that right. When that communication is not present, American forces have been placed in the service of policies defined – or merely hinted at – by others. Minus the rendering of payments, our military is, in effect, being rented out. No good can come of that.