Libya: Like Iraq or Somalia?

Has the US been sucked in?

I’ll be mostly linking today as I am pretty busy, but just to play catch up for a moment: Obama spoke to the nation, justifying the American involvement in the war (Sullivan covers some reactions to the speech here). Yet as Obama spoke about the necessity of acting, it seems more and more clear that despite bits of good news, the outlook in Libya is looking grim. On the one hand there are fears that toppling Qaddafi will just lead to civil war in Libya (not uncommon after a revolution – particularly one aided by foreigners) while on the other hand others expect to see a bloody and long stalemate to take hold. As if looking to validate these depressing predictions, Qaddafi loyalists have retaken the strategic town of Ras Lanuf despite the air support of the international intervention while the city of Misurata – the only rebel held town in the west – is under intense siege.

The recent setbacks of the rebels has led the coalition to debate the possibility of arming the rebels – an action that could be good (ending the conflict quicker) or bad (could potentially make for a bloodier stalemate). Meanwhile, Obama has sent in CIA operatives in order to recover a downed US fighter pilot and gather intelligence on the rebels plans and intentions while signing a secret order to provide covert assistance to the rebels. The news that CIA operatives on the ground and a secret order for covert assistance leads some (including me) skeptical that the CIA is simply ‘gathering intelligence.’

This intervention was supposed to last days, not weeks. Not the US is bombing, potentially arming and putting boots on the ground. Not a good escalation of events if one’s goal is to maintain a minor role. Yet, as NATO takes control of the mission, the US still claims that it is only a minor partner in the fight:

The allies have fired nearly 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles since the campaign started on March 19, all but 7 from the United States. The United States has flown about 370 attack missions, and its allied partners have flown a similar number, but the Americans have dropped 455 precision-guided munitions compared with 147 from other coalition members.

Besides taking part in the airstrikes, the American military is taking the lead role in gathering intelligence, intercepting Libyan radio transmissions, for instance, and using the information to orchestrate attacks against the Libyan forces on the ground. And over the weekend the Air Force quietly sent three of its most fearsome weapons to the operation.

So now that the US has allowed the mission to expand from a no fly zone, to a no drive zone, to regime change, to arming rebels, to putting American boots in Libya, people are wondering if Libya is the next Somalia (mission fails and America bails) or the next Iraq (mission creep leads to lasting presence):

So the question with respect to Libya is whether we’re facing a situation akin to Somalia in 1993 (minus, let’s hope, any U.S. casualties), where the U.S. can walk away following a military intervention and not get dragged back in, or whether the U.S. has set itself up for a second Iraq, where we are left policing and containing Gaddafi until regime change by military force becomes American policy. It may take a subsequent administration or two to reap what this administration has sown.

Photo from Minnesota Public Radio

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