I generally have broad respect for the military assessments made by Anthony Cordesman, and his latest assessment of the situation in Samantha’s War in Libya contains much excellent analysis.
Including this opening paragraph:
- At some point in time, it will be critical to examine the historical record behind the French, British, and US intervention in Libya and why they dragged NATO and allies like Qatar and the UAE into such a gamble. It seems likely, however, that the choice to act came after watching the rebels advance with seeming ease towards Qaddafi’s overthrow and suffer what still seemed like limited reverses. Given past cases, it is likely that regional, intelligence, and military experts in each country all expressed caution and gave warning about the problems and uncertainties involved, but were overruled by their respective political leaders – who saw their staffs as needlessly cautious.
What is already certain is that the end result was a set of decisions that focused on short term considerations and bet on the outcome…
- there is nothing amusing about the fact that the lives and futures of some 6.6 million Libyans are at stake. The Franco-Anglo-American gamble now seems far too likely to fail at their expense. Moreover, it seems likely to drag the other nations that support the operation into their failure — along with part of the reputation of NATO and credibility of the UN…
A weak, divided, poorly led, and badly equipped and supplied set of rebel forces can only hang on with the present level of air support. Yesterday’s announcement that British and French military advisors are going to help is not going to alter that situation quickly. It will take months more – at a minimum – to properly train and equip them and it will take a radical shift in rebel leadership to give them meaningful unity and discipline.
In the interim an enduring war of attrition will turn a minor humanitarian crisis into a major one…
So what does Cordesman recommend? If he truly had the “humanitarian” interests of the Libyan people as his prime goal, surely he would join me in calling an urgent humanitarian ceasefire and the speedy deployment of all international diplomatic mechanisms possible, with the aim of resolving the very tough political matters at issue between Qadhdhafi and his opponents.
But no. He argues instead for a massive escalation of the western war effort:
- France, Britain, the US and other participating members of the Coalition need to shift to the kind of bombing campaign that targets and hunts down Qaddafi’s military and security forces in their bases and as they move – as long before they engage rebel forces as possible. Qaddafi, his extended family, and his key supporters need to be targeted for their attacks on Libyan civilians, even if they are collocated in civilian areas. They need to be confronted with the choice between exile or death, and bombing needs to be intense enough so it is clear to them that they must make a choice as soon as possible.
This kind of operation cannot be “surgical’ – if “surgical” now means minimizing bloodshed regardless of whether the patient dies. Hard, and sometimes brutal, choices need to be made between limited civilian casualties and collateral damage during the decisive use of force and an open-ended war of attrition that will produce far higher cumulative civilian casualties and collateral damage. The Coalition will also need to avoid the trap of blundering into some kind of ceasefire…
His text illustrates something very important about the nature of war. War is a slippery slope. Once you think it’s okay to engage in it, it can very easily face you with exactly the same kind of tough dilemma that Cordesman describes.
For what it’s worth, I think he may be right that, as between launching a huge, “a-l’outrance” escalation now and continuing with the current half-hearted western war effort, probably the escalatory approach would cause less human suffering over the short run of, let’s say, six months.
But then what? As we saw in Iraq, 2003, even a decisive western military victory that succeeds in ousting a hated Arab opponent doesn’t solve the problems of that country’s people. Indeed, in Iraq, on April 9, 2003 the Iraqi people’s travails had barely started to begin.
Look, I have a personal confession to make. Back in 1991, during the early days of the (very speedy) western military campaign to push Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, I was still a supporter of the utility of war (under some circumstances.) Up to the eve of Operation Desert Storm, I had been publicly urging Pres. Bush to give diplomacy and negotiation every single chance he could. But when he did not do that but instead launched the military effort, I then publicly urged him– as Cordesman does here– to pursue the war wholeheartedly and with massive force, in order to make it short and decisive.
Afterwards, I hated myself for having written those belligerent newspaper columns; and sometime in the mid-1990s I became a completely convinced pacifist.
I completely understand the technical-military expertise and deep realism that Anthony Cordesman brings to his analysis. And I believe that Cordesman– unlike so many of the armchair analysts and liberal hawks who have been baying for this war– does have a deep understanding of the dynamics and consequences of warfare. But because of my own experience in 1991, I urge him to follow the path I adopted in the years after 1991… Above all, people should never let themselves get railroaded and rushed into reaching the conclusion that “only” war can solve their problems. This is never the case. There is always a better way.