Source Link: Stratfor
On Monday night, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to the nation on Libya at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. His purpose was to explain and justify his decision to play a leading role in an air campaign targeting the North African state and to provide an update on that effort moving forward.
The speech closely follows a rapid drive westward by rebel forces from the disputed town of Ajdabiya just south of the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi in the east to the outskirts of Sirte; Sirte sits astride the broad swath of open terrain that serves as an enormous geographic buffer between the eastern and western portions of the country. It is also Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown and a potential stronghold for loyalist forces.
“The case that American national interests were at stake in Libya is a difficult one to make.”
But the rebels’ progress was not all that it appeared to be. The rapid drive westward was not a rout of Gadhafi’s forces, and conquest did not take the towns that fell into rebel hands in the last 48 hours. All indications suggest that loyalist forces executed a deliberate withdrawal to strongholds in the west, terminating their eastern campaign and with it the extended lines that had become vulnerable to coalition airpower. Whether forces loyal to Gadhafi will now attempt to hold in Sirte or withdraw further is not so important. The vital issue is whenever and wherever loyalist forces choose to defend positions in built-up urban areas where civilians are present, there are very limited prospects of rebels supported by airpower rooting them out.
Obama’s speech attempted to emphasize that helping the Libyan people and removing Gadhafi from power are the right things to do. The logical extension of this argument is that it is the right thing to do to support this ragtag force that is the only physical opposition to Gadhafi in the country. Obama made a clear and consistent appeal to the moral imperative to act, anchored only abstractly to the idea that acting was in the American national interest. There are inherent problems with the campaign, with the disconnect between military objectives, the military force applied to the problem and the larger political goals for the country. It could still very easily backfire on the coalition.
Obama claimed that while the United States cannot and should not intervene in every scenario where there is a humanitarian imperative at stake (a necessary point to make given several other regional hotspots that could quickly descend into humanitarian crises), nevertheless the circumstances in this particular case were appropriate for action. This claim goes hand-in-hand with the distinction he attempted to draw in the speech between this intervention and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which involved large numbers of boots on the ground.
It is rarely in the American national interest to become bogged down in a land war in Asia, certainly not in a protracted counterinsurgency involving more than 100,000 troops in what is anything but a decisive conflict of high geopolitical significance. In all but these rare exceptions, geopolitics and grand strategy dictate that the United States intervene overseas in only limited spoiling attacks intended to shape regional balances of power.
The case that American national interests were at stake in Libya is a difficult one to make. The coalition intervention is probably more likely to be remembered for its inherent flaws — its lack of clear, defined military objectives consistent with the military forces and resources allocated to the problem. There is also the disconnect between military and political objectives and the limited ability of airpower to intervene meaningfully against military forces already ensconced in built-up urban areas. But this intervention has indeed been limited. Although American participation in the conflict is decisive — however it plays out — nevertheless, the fact that it is limited means there is little chance of it having the systemic and prolonged repercussions for U.S. national security as did the American decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and surge forces to Afghanistan in 2009.