The White House wanted the Pentagon to come up with a low-cost regime-change plan for Libya. Ideally, this strategy would have toppled Col. Muammar Gaddafi without bogging the U.S. down in another inconclusive foreign adventure. And by no means could the plan have included young American infantrymen advancing under fire across the sand.
The military kept insisting that no such option existed. A real regime-change operation, some officers argued, requires "boots on the ground." That was a cost the White House, given rising domestic pressure to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, was unwilling to consider. [my emphasis]
I'm cautious about putting factual weight onto what seems to be a relatively thinly-sourced claim.
But it's a classic case of Pentagon spin, whether this anonymous official is in the military or not. To hear the standard Pentagon PR spin, you'd think our armed forces haven't lost a battle since Custer's Last Stand. And any minor setbacks on the road to victory after glorious victory were caused by wimpy civilians who tried to tell our generals which wars to fight and what their limits were. This is squarely in that mode of spin:
"It's a mess," lamented a senior U.S. official. Washington took the bold step of committing military force, but not enough to win. The administration waited to apply very limited military force until it was almost too late, and now, the official says, it has painted the U.S. "into a corner." In the resulting stalemate, Libyan rebels and civilians are being ruthlessly pursued and killed while the United States, in effect, stands helplessly by. [my emphasis]
First, reality check: the US hasn't painted itself into anything in Libya yet. The President could announce tomorrow that we've done what we set out to do in Libya, we wish our French and British friends well if they continue to participate in Libya's civil war, and we're pulling out our participation because we kind of have two other wars still in progress. The bold Maverick McCain would go on Meet the Press with lipless David Gregory to huff and puff about how that wasn't tough enough. The neocons would bitch and moan and go back to lobbying for a war they really want, like with Syria or especially Iran. The public would be relieved, not being very hot on the war anyway, on top of knowing and caring virtually nothing about Libya to begin with. And it's highly unlikely it would cost Obama or other Democrats a single vote they would have gotten otherwise.
So we certainly have the option of folding up this misguided mission and walking away. So far as we've heard in the public record, there have been no Americans killed yet. So the emotional factor of needing to shed more American blood to avenge the blood already shed hasn't yet become a factor. Even though it may not compute inside the Beltway Village bubble, we still have the option of just walking away from it. To borrow a campaign slogan from 2008, yes we can.
It seems credible on the face of it that the Obama team bought into some fantasy of a quick and easy war. It won't surprise me much if it turns out the CIA working with the usual cast of shady exiles and maybe with French intelligence cooked up a hairbrained scheme that if we just jumped in and did something dramatic, their exile allies would activate their big networks of resistance fighters and activists and the Qaddafi government would be gone within days.
Whatever the details turn out to be, it was obvious from the get-go that this was a poorly-considered intervention. From most people's perspective, one day we were watching the pro-democracy demonstrations in the Arab world from afar, then a few days later the UN Security Council passed a resolution and the United States went to war the next day. It's hard to imagine that the Administration would have rolled this thing out that way if they thought we were looking at months and years of intervention in a nasty little civil war. It's a safe bet they were expecting to get very lucky in a short period of time. Betting on fantastic luck is not a good way to go to war.
This notion of a quick victory on the cheap and easy was Rummy's idea of how war should be. He and his supporters took the short campaign to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan as a model for this kind of war. Today, we're close to ten years in that war with no end in sight. You would think that fact might have warned the most cockeyed optimist against the idea.
Stephen Walt uses the current moment in the Libya War to offer a Realist lesson in military intervention (The intervention paradoxForeign Policy 04/20/2011):
... the paradox [is]: if you go in light you get a protracted stalemate; if you go in big you end up with a costly quagmire. Under these circumstances you can understand why the intervening powers are tiptoeing their way in, but as noted above, that merely increases the danger that the civil war drags on.
There is a third option, however: great powers could be a lot more careful about where and when they used military power to try to determine who gets to run some foreign country. But that's an option that U.S. leaders seem to have forgotten. [my emphasis]
Wood's story is a bit confusing, because it's structured around the supposed Obama-Pentagon conflict over the Libya War. He quotes a couple of military analysts on the record, but it's not clear whether they are confirming the factual claims of Mr. Anonymous Important Official about the specifics. Although the specifics aren't anything sensational. Obviously the Pentagon is going to present a plan for war that looks guaranteed to work, if only so they have an alibi later for when things go wrong.
One of his military analyst quotes is revealing in another way:
"I worry the [White House] civilians will interfere and mess up" the clear-cut military operation in Libya, said Duke University Professor Peter Feaver, who managed Iraq War policy in the Bush White House from 2005 to 2007.
But, he added, "I worry that the military will do what it wants and ignore the political guidance from the top. The truth is," he told The Huffington Post, "both bad things could and have happened in the past."
Well, that should cover all the bases! But what's interesting is not his airhead speculation. It's that an official "who managed Iraq War policy in the Bush White House from 2005 to 2007" is apparently first worrying about whether "the civilians will interfere." Republicans like to claim they are letting the military run things the way they want, because the whole idea of civilian control of the military is unpopular with their base voters. But in fact, Cheney and Rummy actually insisted that the generals do things their way, all the while pretending they were just following the generals' advice.
But he did get one of the two military analysts who actually knows what he's talking about, the military scholar Stephen Biddle:
"The problem with both Afghanistan and Libya is that the administration sees U.S. interests as real but limited, and wants a military option whose scale and cost is limited," said Stephen Biddle, a senior defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) who has been involved in these exchanges as an adviser to both the White House and the Pentagon.
"The military doesn’t see a limited option that will actually secure U.S. interests -- that option doesn't exist -- and so frustration sets in," he said.
Stephen Walt makes a better point and more briefly than David Wood does. Wood's article mainly boils down to the banal observation that tension exists between the Pentagon and its civilian superiors. But he doesn't get around to explaining that it occurs in no small part because both sides in that tension want the other side to take the blame if things go wrong, and want to get the credit themselves if things go swimmingly. Although when you think about the more notable US military conflicts since the Second World War - Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans - there has generally been more opportunity to duck the blame than to grab the credit.