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Obama Is Missing in Action So Here’s A Libyan Transition Strategy

Posted by Robbin Laird on



Libya has become the Obama administration’s Iraq.

Enthusiasm for intervention without clarity of strategy after intervention is common to both the Bush and Obama administrations. What is different is that George W. Bush took ownership of the Iraq crisis; Barack Obama has not.

In the Libyan case, the dynamics are occurring in the background of an explosive Middle East. No matter how stovepiped our policy processes, there is significant interaction among the various locations of change in the Middle East.

The difficulty with politicians and the media is that they have one issue fixation. The Western and Eastern Mediterranean are seeing significant upheaval, but each event is looked at only in and of itself.

It is striking how isolated the coverage and the policies have been towards each element re-shaping the Middle Eastern puzzle.

The Libyan case has several key elements which put the credibility of the United States and Europe on the line.

First, the Libyan intervention was a “lead from behind” exercise for the Obama administration. For Europe it was a military intervention with EU humanitarian aid in the rear drill. After “leading from behind” and toppling the Libyan dictator, the administration failed to put together a transition strategy. And Europe has largely gone missing in action from shaping a credible support effort to ensure transition. The EU may have won the Nobel Peace Prize but now needs to earn it in Libya.

Second, a transition strategy is tough and nasty. It means recognizing that Libya is neither stable nor settled. It is a territory where terrorists will operate, and factions will struggle with one another for dominance.

These difficulties are covered over by providing support for “rebels.” When politicians starting supporting “rebels” I get concerned. I am old enough to remember such great democratic “rebels” as Fidel Castro. That turned well, didn’t it?

Third, the misplaced notions of the dominance of soft power need to go. If we are to have a transition in Libya we need security to allow for stability and growth. Security requires outside military and security forces protecting Western interests and shaping stability in the country.

And, yes, Western interests need to be on the table. Insertion of force, toppling regimes without a discussion of interest almost always guarantees outcomes, which are not. Look at the victory lap on Iraq withdrawal, which avoids rather nasty realities such as whose oil companies and arms suppliers are now the friends of Iraq. It’s hard to find Americans very high on that list. And of course the Iraq government is supporting Assad against those “rebels.”

Fourth, the catastrophic failure to secure shoulder-fired surface to-air missiles (called MANPADS by the military) present in Libya is creating a potential new global reality. By not putting troops on the ground in Libya to find, destroy or move those missiles, the West may have met UN requirements and fed political instincts at home, but it made no strategic sense whatsoever.

Those loose MANPADS can not only kill Western forces, but can have significant global economic impact as well if they were used to shoot down a civilian airliner or destroy it on the runway.

“Of course, the MANPADS threat – accelerated by Libyan developments – poses the stark possibility of repeating what we saw after 9/11. A sharp downturn in the commercial airplane business, and 10-year growth plans was thrown into the wastebasket after the terrorist crashed into the World Trade Center,” a senior European industrialist pointed out on my last trip to Europe. “A MANPADS incident could be the functional equivalent; and could shut down the commercial airplane business. It would recover, but the demand to deal with this threat would then have to be dealt with, rather than ignored.”

Running from the problem is no solution. Inventing protests that did not happen, or not being informed by the State Department of this or that does not shape a strategy. As my colleague Ed Timperlake wrote last year, Hope is Not a Strategy.

So we need a strategy, and not some statement of hope about the Arab Spring, Summer or whatever it is.

The way ahead is difficult and challenging. And the way ahead can only be a transition to a true national Libyan government, which may not be democratic and may not be our best friend. It is not necessarily a step in the proliferating Arab Spring, but perhaps a step AWAY from an Arab Winter.

The first element is to get realistic about what can be done. Destroying the old is relatively easy; building something new is not.

The second element is to recognize that hard and soft power are not alternate ends of the spectrum but must be blended together into an effective strategy. We need to help rebuild infrastructure and a functioning economy, but this requires an external border security system and continued Western presence in Libya.

Presence requires the ability to defend Western citizens. Acts of violence such as what has happened to the US ambassador and the other embassy workers require a greater response than simply waiting for a Libyan legal system to sort itself out. We need to be like Israel in this situation: whichever group of villains did this need to be punished, even if they are not currently in Libya. Respect in the international arena is not given; it is earned.

Europe and the US do not have the resources to spend or simply will not spend them to rebuild Libya. But aid is needed now and civilian experts are needed now to rebuild the country. A Libyan aid agency can be formed whereby aid is repaid from future oil earnings. The money could be paid back to the EU and the US and whomever else through these future oil earnings.

Perimeter security needs to be set up by the US and Europe with core Arab ally support. The system can be paid for by the Libyan Aid Agency funds. If you do not have security you can not have development, especially given the fragility of Libya’s oil infrastructure and transportation systems.

Finally, here’s a message to both political camps in the United States. Assuming that joyous citizens await you when you whack a dictator is not realistic. Crafting a policy on such nonsense on stilts, to quote John Stuart Mill, guarantees that we will always have a realistic strategy gap. Syria comes to mind as the next instance of a place where we need to get realistic.

Robbin Laird, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is an international defense consultant and owner of the Second LIne of Defense website.

What do you think?