March 21, 2011

Mr. Obama - please define our mission in Libya

We are not yet three days into Operation Odyssey Dawn, the United Nations mandated enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the forces of Mu'amar al-Qadhafi from killing Libyan civilians. Already there are issues with a clear definition of our mission. What exactly are we, the United States, hoping to accomplish?

First, to borrow a phrase from the President, let me be clear. I support the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. I called for it weeks ago. I am also on record stating that in the absence of a no-fly zone, the Libyan rebellion would have failed and Qadhafi would remain in power. I defended Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper when he made that same assessment in a Congressional hearing.

My reasons for supporting a no-fly zone were also clear: to give the rebellion a chance to succeed. Three weeks ago, the imposition of a no-fly zone may have led to the overthrow of the Qadhafi regime. Military units and government officials were defecting on a daily basis. As President Obama "dithered" and equivocated on why not to push for action, the momentum of the rebellion stalled and Qadhafi regrouped. By the time the United Nations, moving glacially as usual, got its act together, the no-fly zone was necessary to prevent wholesale slaughter in the remaining rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

Since the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, there seems to be confusion in the Obama administration about what we are trying to accomplish. Most of us Middle East specialists took the President and Secretary of State Clinton at their word: Qadhafi must go. They both said it; I assume they meant it. When the President and Secretary rallied the Europeans and the United Nations to unite against what was happening in Libya, I thought they were being true to their word. When the President of the United States and his chief foreign policy architect advocate regime change, it stands to reason that subsequent diplomatic and military action is in support of that policy.

Yet today in Chile, the President sought to bifurcate the ongoing military operation from American policy. According to his remarks, American policy was that Qadhafi no longer had legitimacy and needed to go, but that the objective of Operation Odyssey Dawn was to protect Libyan civilians from Qadhafi's forces.

What we have here, as my wife describes it, is "it's 'Amateur Hour' at the White House." Policy and actions should not be separate issues. Policy drives the actions and operations. Committing American military power to an operation that is not in line with stated policy is ludicrous. We have sent hundreds of young American airmen, sailors and Marines into harm's way, so why are they not operating toward the achievement of our stated policy goals?

Do I not recall Mrs. Clinton telling us she was "ready on day one" to lead the country? Here we are over two years into this administration and they still don't get it. When you order American armed forces into action, you need to delineate the mission. As graduates of any of our command and staff or war colleges know, military force is an element of foreign policy, just as diplomacy is. The standard phrase in the military about the application of military power is "when diplomacy fails."

Here is the dilemma. We have now engineered a United Nations resolution authorizing "all available means" to prevent Qadhafi's forces from killing civilians. Nowhere in that resolution is authorization for the removal of the Qadhafi regime from power. So, Mr. President, just what would you have General Carter Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, do? Shall he merely prevent loss of civilian life, or shall he maneuver forces for the removal of the regime?

If this was an American foreign policy issue, the answer is obvious. Apply the military force in a manner that destroys the centers of gravity of the regime while ensuring that pro-Qadhafi forces cannot attack rebel forces or civilian populations. Oh yeah, you might want to make sure Qadhafi does not try to torch the oil fields like Saddam Husayn did in 1991.

You see where this is going. There is no clear mandate from the President. The American military will do whatever you order them to do. Trust me, the armed forces are capable of that, but you have to articulate what you want them to do. Thus far, it's too ambiguous.

The bifurcation of policy and mandate is a recipe for disaster. When the civilian population and the rebels are safe from the Qadhafi regime but the regime is still firmly in power, there will be a stalemate. What then?

Be the commander in chief - issue the orders that execute American policy as you have defined it. You cannot have it both ways.

Welcome to the real world.