War of scenarios

    Hey, just what we needed – a third war. Worse yet, it’s a war that spawns new questions by the hour. Very basic questions, such as: Why the heck are we in Libya, and what do we really aim to achieve? If our “targeted mission” scenario goes awry, what’s the backup plan? What resources are we prepared to expend if confronted with an open-ended scenario?The intervention rationale makes a certain amount of sense. This is a major human-rights emergency; in the name of morality and decency, the civilized world is taking action to curb Moammar Gadhafi’s impulse to murder his own people; and it’s doing so under the auspices of an international coalition that spreads the military burden among the heretofore reluctant Europeans (France actually launched some air strikes!), while seemingly ensuring that Operation Odyssey Dawn can’t be assailed by America-haters as an American vanity project (or maybe it can; by mid-weekend, France had yielded to America, which launched 100 strikes). As President Obama declared when he accepted the Nobel Prize, “I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds.”That’s all fine, as far as it goes. But the big questions persist. Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen ran the Washington Pentathlon yesterday – in other words, he surfaced on five Sunday talk shows – and by the time he was done, the war in Libya looked even murkier. He said that the coalition’s goals are “limited in scope,” that this is fundamentally a “humanitarian effort” to save the lives of rebels and civilians. Therefore, he said, this intervention is not designed to topple Gadhafi himself (“it isn’t about seeing him go”); indeed, the United Nations resolution doesn’t mandate Gadhafi’s removal. But the thing is, President Obama has essentially signaled for weeks that he wants Gadhafi gone.Ideally, the coalition would love to speedily destabilize Gadhafi, via these air strikes, and thus inspire his own military to act against him – but if that doesn’t happen, what’s our Plan B? If Gadhafi ultimately agrees to a ceasefire and remains in power (“That’s certainly potentially one outcome,” said Mullen), who’s to say that he won’t simply bide his time and wipe out the insurgents when the West is focused elsewhere? What if Gadhafi defies all ceasefire talk and simply digs in for a long siege, using civilians as human shields? (Mullen assures us, “All of these targets were looked at in terms of absolutely minimizing collateral damage,” which, in translation, means that we will have to gird ourselves for collateral damage.)Under a long-siege scenario, for how long – and at what commitment of resources – is the West prepared to aid the rebels? (And who are these rebels, anyway? Is there an identifiable democratic leader?) Bottom line: If our mandate is indeed to protect civilians, then how far does that commitment extend? If our air strikes do not sufficiently protect them, are we morally obligated to send ground troops to protect them – despite Obama’s explicit vow that no Americans will be sent?(By the way, the international coalition against Gadhafi is not nearly as far flung as first advertised. Yes, the Arab League endorsed the no-fly zone, but let it be noted that the Arab League has already questioned the West’s bombing missions, conducted for the purposes of grounding Gadhafi’s planes and safeguarding the no-fly zone. Meanwhile, it’d be swell if the Egyptian military agreed to aid the intervention, given the fact that Egypt abuts Libya, and given the fact that America has showered billions upon the Egyptian military these past 30 years. But no, they’re not lifting a finger.)  In America, meanwhile, it’s noteworthy that the debate over this intervention has breached the usual ideological fault lines. Which I actually find quite refreshing. On this issue, liberal humanitarians are roughly in sync with the conservatives who embrace Middle East democratization, while the antiwar liberals who fear “mission creep” are roughly in sync with the Republican skeptics who believe we should intervene only when our vital national interests are threatened. As such, I suspect that many of us might shift our views and concerns in the difficult days and weeks ahead; for now, I’ll simply second the concerns voiced over the weekend by Howard McKeon, the new Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee:”Are our goals aimed at protecting civilians in Libya, or the removal of Moammar Gadhafi from power? In either case, to what extent and for how long will military resources be utilized?”

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