It’s all bombing under the bridge now, but more than a decade ago President Clinton faced a crucial decision after a two-month NATO air campaign had failed to dislodge Serb autocrat Slobodan Milosevic from the besieged province of Kosovo. Would the U.S. president finally order a ground campaign, even though he had firmly ruled that out in the beginning? Clinton didn’t have to in the end, but it was a closer-run thing than most people realize: just hours before Milosevic and the Serbs finally agreed to withdraw, the president had scheduled a meeting with his Joint Chiefs to mull a ground invasion. It was the nightmare scenario in a fight that barely seemed to register on the Richter scale of U.S. national interests.
Not unlike Libya today.
Ironically, Clinton's willingness to consider the ground option may have helped to tilt Milosevic toward a deal shortly after Memorial Day 1999—which only underlined what a major tactical error the president had made in foreclosing ground troops at the beginning of the NATO effort. “We had to end the conventional wisdom that we were being boxed in" with no options left, as one Clinton administration official described it to me at the time.
President Obama is looking very boxed in right now in Libya. A stalemate appears to be emerging between rebel forces entrenched in the cities of Misurata and Benghazi and attacking troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi. Indeed, if the level of Western assistance remains as it is, stalemate may be the best-case scenario right now, with the possibility of a bloodbath still very real in Misurata.
President Obama, who ruled out ground forces at the outset of the NATO campaign in Libya—just as Clinton did in 1999—continues to take what his own government describes as an incremental approach to helping the rebels, deferring to French and British leadership. Asked what Washington and NATO would do about the siege of Misurata, Assistant Secretary of State Phil Gordon, in a briefing on Monday, answered with pitch-perfect obfuscation.
Asked what NATO was doing now, Gordon touted “five international meetings in the space of just a couple of weeks, all designed to do exactly what you say—ask ourselves 'Are we doing everything possible to make sure that we are succeeding in implementing the Security Council resolutions and the goals of the United States?' " Pressed further on whether Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would bring new recommendations back from her overseas consultations, Gordon responded: “She’s giving a lot of thought to this, as we all are, and as allies are. As you note, she has said, and we believe, that the [Transitional National Council, the informal governing group], which we believe is an important voice of the people of Libya, needs more assistance. We’ve been looking at ways to get them financial assistance and non-lethal assistance, and some of that is underway.”
But when the subject of ground forces came up again, Gordon suddenly broke into clear English again. “President Obama has ruled out a ground force, so that’s, I think, pretty clear,” he said.
According to one European official, NATO is betting that continuing airstrikes and sanctions “will be a signal to those around Qaddafi” that it’s time to get rid of him and his family. The official said the hope is that London’s lenient treatment of Libya’s defecting foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, will also send a message to others in the regime. In the meantime, he said, “time is more on our side” as the rebels congeal under Western advice and obtain revenues from oil sales through Qatar while Qaddafi’s forces begin to disintegrate.
But in truth there are scant signs of the latter development, or of rebel coordination. And other European officials are once again taking the lead in confronting the flaws in the plan for the Libyan rescue. "The exclusive use of air power, as imposed on us by U.N. Security Council resolution 1973, has proved its limitations in the face of targets that are mobile and hard to track," Axel Poniatowski, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the French National Assembly, said on Monday, according to the BBC. Poniatowski said NATO pilots often found it hard to distinguish between pro-Qaddafi forces and rebels. "Without information from the ground, coalition planes are flying blind and increasing the risk of friendly fire incidents," he said.
In a briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner conceded that “Qaddafi’s forces have adapted. They’ve infiltrated. And it’s been hard, from whatever 10,000 feet to hit some of these targets and to do a better job at protecting Misurata and enforcing that civilian protection aspect of it.” The British just announced a total of 10 soldiers would be sent to assist the rebels, and it is believed that U.S. covert forces are providing advice and assistance on the ground. A U.S. envoy, Chris Stevens, has been assessing the situation on the ground for two weeks and advising on what Toner called “incremental steps.”
Another problem is that Qaddafi may be left with no way out, either through negotiation or exile. That makes the challenge harder for Obama now than it was for Clinton in 1999, given that the current president’s stated goal is regime change (in contrast to Clinton’s aim of merely stopping the Serb slaughter of Kosovars).
Ironically, Qaddafi has occasionally caved in the past when he has been personally threatened, as happened in 2003 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq persuaded him to begin talks on surrendering his nuclear program. But if he is committed to surviving in blood, as he seems to be now, then minus a new threat from Qaddafi’s declared foes—NATO and Washington—we may be facing a conflict even more drawn-out than Kosovo was.
The question is whether Obama will squarely confront that danger—and the possibility that his and NATO’s credibility are once again at stake. At bottom, Obama is strapped by a latter-day iteration of what the late Richard Holbrooke once described to me as “Vietmalia” syndrome—a wariness of suffering U.S. casualties in out-of-the-way places like Vietnam and Somalia, where both the national interest and the exit strategy were unclear. Vietmalia syndrome was what made Clinton so reluctant to consider ground troops in Kosovo, and now Obama is dealing with something far worse, since the United States has added Iraq and Afghanistan to the list of appallingly costly U.S. military ventures in the years since. Call it “Vietmaliraqistan” syndrome.
But paradoxically, in order to avoid adding Libya to what has already become an unwieldy multi-syllabic syndrome, the president may have to offer up more than he has so far in assistance, and even consider ground troops.