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Sunday, April 24, 2011

War can't be a half measure

You can't be half pregnant. And you can't be half at war. Either you are or you aren't. If you aren't, and you behave like you are, you're asking for trouble.

One would have thought that the United States would have learned that lesson in Vietnam (and for that matter, that Israel would have learned it in southern Lebanon). But one of the goals of the Obama administration seems to be to re-test every lesson the United States has ever learned, and that includes going to war with one hand tied behind its back. Of course, I am speaking about Libya.
But now, several weeks later, that neat package is coming undone. The war rages on. The rebels, disorganized and underequipped, are neither winning nor losing; Kadafi is neither firmly entrenched nor on his way out, as far as anyone knows. NATO, its members still squabbling among themselves, has no formal mandate to oust the Libyan leader but is unwilling to walk away either. Hundreds have died, while the diplomatic and economic squeeze has so far proved unsuccessful. In this frustrating situation, unsurprisingly, there's a natural tendency toward "mission creep," as the U.S. and other NATO nations try to figure out how to break the stalemate. Britain, France and Italy say they will send military advisors to help the rebels (in a move that can't help but remind Americans of the gradual start of the Vietnam War). On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that Obama had authorized the deployment of armed Predator drones to target Kadafi's forces, deepening the United States' role in a conflict that increasingly seems to be about more than protecting civilians.

What a mess. And not a totally unfamiliar one. Proponents of stronger action against Kadafi say the problem is that the United States is not fully committed, that it is half-in and half-out, unwilling to risk dollars or lives to achieve its aims. There's some truth to that analysis. As Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations (and not a supporter of stronger action), has noted, there's a gap between the ambitious goal of ousting Kadafi and the tremendous limits the U.S. has put on the means.

For our part, we'd rather see the ambitions narrowed than the means expanded. We don't see the upside in getting more deeply involved in a third distant war on behalf of rebels we know little about, even against the repugnant Kadafi government. The United States not only doesn't have any vital national security interests at stake, but it already has 100,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan, 50,000 in Iraq and 18,000 more assisting Japan after the earthquake and tsunami. The U.S. and the international community have an important role to play in protecting populations from humanitarian crisis or genocide, but no one has proved that Libya is an especially compelling example of either, distinguishable from all the other tragic cases of brutality and war around the world. If there was intelligence evidence of the "violence on a horrific scale" that Obama warned of, what was it? The United States can't possibly fight all the dictators who raise weapons against their own people, no matter how much it might wish to.
This is a war in which the US should never have gotten involved. The problem is that at this point, backing out would be yet another US defeat, further degrading the American reputation in this region. Maybe that's what Obama wanted all along: A half-hearted commitment that would not be enough to win but which would have a deleterious effect on the United States' prestige and honor.

What could go wrong?

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