When the intervention in Libya began, President Obama insisted no American ground forces would be involved. On Thursday, the U.S. Africa Command combatant commander speculated that troops may be needed, even if he considered it a bad idea.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. Carter Ham discussed the increasingly complex situation in Libya, explaining that the war had reached a point of stalemate. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s offensive had largely been halted, but rebel forces have no chance of toppling him from power. Asked if U.S. ground forces might be needed to tip the balance, he said, “I suspect there might be some consideration of that.” The general added his personal view that it probably would not be “the ideal circumstance, again for the regional reaction that having American boots on the ground would entail.”
The main problem with the Libyan war has been a lack of conceptual unity. Coalition military performance has been exemplary, as one might expect. Imposing a no-fly zone over Libya and conducting air strikes on Col. Gadhafi’s offensive ground forces come as close to a routine military operation as any such complex and violent effort can be. Mr. Obama could well have claimed “mission accomplished” when the White House blandly announced the advent of Operation Unified Protector, which continued the effort originally known as Operation Odyssey Dawn but under NATO leadership. The administration’s real “mission accomplished” was making sure Mr. Obama abandoned his global leadership role as quickly as possible.
America’s rush to the door is the root of the current problem. Mr. Obama’s original concept for intervention was little more than a bumper-sticker slogan, “protect Libyan civilians.” There was no evident strategic concept and no obvious planning for second- and third-order consequences once force was employed. Coalition military forces did what they were ordered to do, but this also created the current stalemate on the ground. Since Mr. Obama emphasized his lack of interest in leading the effort beyond a few days, it may well be that the White House considered such planning unnecessary. Those phases of the conflict would be someone else’s problem.
Despite Mr. Obama’s mission to reduce America’s role as a world leader, the United States cannot avoid the consequences of crises with global impact. The civil war in Libya has added to the general disruption in the Middle East. Oil prices are soaring, and domestic gasoline prices have risen every day since coalition military intervention began - spiking 6 percent in 19 days. Mr. Obama’s response, a snarky comment about Americans trading in their current cars for higher-gas-mileage models, was not his finest moment.
On top of all this, the humanitarian situation in Libya may become worse than it was before the intervention began. The siege of Libya’s third largest city of Misrata threatens to become a catastrophe. Food, water and medical supplies for the city’s 300,000 people are running short. Gadhafi forces are fighting a bloody unconventional urban battle for the city that cannot effectively be stopped by air strikes alone. Hundreds have been killed or wounded. The North Atlantic Council is looking into ways to lift the siege, but absent ground forces, it’s unclear what can be done.
The key bit of jargon to watch for is the expression “unique capabilities.” The fact remains that there are some military missions that only the United States has the ability to undertake, and discussions of these “unique capabilities” can be decoded as laying the groundwork for escalation. Whether this means American boots on the ground or support for other ground forces remains to be seen, but that new phase of war is coming soon.