In the aftermath of the president’s National Defense University speech on Libya, U.S. objectives in Libya are still confusing and confounding to many. Our military, whether under U.S. command or NATO command, is participating in no-fly and humanitarian protection missions, while the administration, the United Nations Security Council and our foreign allies declare that these missions are unrelated to the U.S. policy to see Col. Moammar Gadhafi gone. Regardless, no-fly and humanitarian protection missions are insufficient to topple an entrenched dictator, and even the military leaders acknowledge they could see a post-intervention scenario that leaves Col. Gadhafi in power.
A climate of cognitive dissonance surrounds the discussion as the military objectives seem detached from U.S. and international policy. Yet, leaders seem comfortable with this apparent inconsistency. The contradiction could be deliberate and could be a first manifestation of the administration’s view on the use of force and the role of diplomacy, a view quite different from U.S. policy over recent decades.
For at least a generation, the role of the military has been one of a decisive option of last resort to support vital U.S. interests. All other instruments available to the government were used first - diplomacy, multilateral suasion, negotiation, economic aid, economic sanctions, trade restrictions - to persuade or compel adversaries to comport with our policies. If such soft power came up short, and if the situation posed an existential or vital threat to the United States or its allies, the military was prepared to use hard power to resolve it. Grenada, Panama, Bosnia and the Persian Gulf War were examples of the use of force as a last resort, where soft power came up short and hard power was employed to achieve U.S. objectives. Even in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where popular myth would suggest a trigger-happy president was too quick to use force, the administration argued that diplomacy had failed, multilateral sanctions had come up short, and the use of force was the last option left to address a direct threat to U.S. national interests.
In these cases, the U.S. interest was vital and the use of force was decisive. Libya does not fit this model, and the implications for the use of force by this administration are significant. In Libya, we are told the use of military force is not meant to be decisive but limited to protecting the civilians, and has no role in the voluntary or involuntary removal of Col. Gadhafi from power. For that outcome, the administration is relying on either the State Department to negotiate his departure or on the rebels to facilitate his departure - or death. The lack of connectivity between the use of military force and campaign objectives, the subordination of the military to a nondecisive purpose, turns decades of policy on the use of force on its head.
Vital national interests are not threatened by Libya. Nor have sanctions failed or has diplomacy been exhausted. Rather, it would appear the military is being employed in an unprecedented manner, a manner inconsistent with the axioms of previous generations. The military is not being used by exception as the final, decisive instrument to compel Col. Gadhafi to leave or to submit to the will of the international community, but merely as a shaping element in the overall diplomatic campaign. The diplomatic campaign, to use military terminology, is the main effort. The military campaign is merely meant to support and enable the diplomacy, and that is a precarious precedent.
We are putting the lives of our troops at risk in a nondecisive role for a mission that does not meet the threshold of a vital or national interest. If Operation Odyssey Dawn is an expression of this administration’s view on the use of force and the U.S. military as an enabler for diplomacy, then expect to see lower thresholds for interventions, more frequent use of the military, and roles that do not leverage its decisive characteristics. For a military carrying the burden of three wars on its back for the foreseeable future, a policy of more frequent intervention and suboptimal use of force as an instrument of diplomacy is a mistake.
Retired Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt was assistant secretary of state for political military affairs and deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East in the George W. Bush administration.