March 18, 2011 6:13PM

Libya: War Without Policy

No clear plan yet guides the foreign military intervention likely to start in Libya this weekend or shortly thereafter. There is instead a coalition forming in service of a hazy United Nations authorization of a tactic: a no-fly zone or air strikes on military targets. The goal is vague.  

According to the French, the British, the U.S. secretary of state, and the wishes of many of people we are trying to help, the aim is to overthrow Qaddafi and establish something resembling a representative democracy. According to the U.N. Security Council resolution passed last night, the U.S. president, and the Arab League, we are fighting to protect Libyan civilians.

If our goal is simply to minimize civilian suffering, it is not clear that we should take the rebel side, rather than hastening Qaddafi's victory. Even a repressive autocracy will likely kill fewer civilians than protracted civil war. Every sentient observer understands, however, that we are taking sides in this war, not simply enforcing peace.

The tactic that all participants now agree on — a no-fly zone — does little to serve either goal. With the Libyan regime's air force suppressed, the rebels will still likely lack the material and organization to hold the territory they now control, let alone conquer Tripoli. The danger to civilians comes chiefly from ground forces. If, however, air power is used for close air support, it might tip the balance of power in the rebel's favor. If air strikes can target Qaddafi's units as they drive east, the strikes can protect many civilians.

The vagueness on policy goals may be the price of gaining international consensus. Plans and tactics may clarify at tomorrow's war summit in Paris. If they do not, our leaders will be guilty of military malpractice. Maybe that will not matter because  Qaddafi's regime will simply capitulate. But without goals that match our tactics, the intervention in Libya is likely to fail.

Besides exercising the constitutional war powers that no longer interest it, our Congress, along with European parliaments, ought to demand answers to several questions on policy toward Libya, such as:

  1. What is our goal in Libya? What happens if the allies disagree on goals?
  2. Are we planning to enforce a no-fly zone, bomb military units that are attacking civilian targets, or provide the rebels with close air support and strategic bombing? Will we send in special operators to help target air strikes?
  3. If we manage to stop, by force or its threat, Qaddafi's forces from taking Benghazi and the rest of the rebel stronghold in Libya's east, are we prepared to indefinitely enforce the de facto partition of Libya?
  4. Would we offer air support for a rebel offensive?
  5. If Qaddafi consolidates his gains before or despite allied efforts to stop him, should we try to overthrow him? If so, how? What if he doesn't kill many civilians?
  6. If the rebels win and ask for a peacekeeping force while they form a new government, do we provide it?
  7. If the rebels attack civilians, do we attack them?