Libya: Don't panic, it has only been four days.

Military analysis.
March 23 2011 6:28 PM

Is Libya Like Kosovo?

Let's hope so.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the  Libya conflict

Destroyed tank from coalition forces. Click image to expand.
A Libyan rebel stands atop a vehicle destroyed by coalition air strikes on March 20, 2011

It's worth noting, four days into the air campaign against Libya, that we're just four days into the air campaign against Libya.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

On cable news, four days seems an eternity. Hence the vein-popping impatience for Qaddafi to crumble, the outrage that Obama isn't doing something more quickly (just what isn't quite clear), the heaving sighs over the coalition's failure (after hours of meetings) to work out the precise procedures of command and control.

Yet as several Pentagon officials cautioned at the outset of this crisis, these things are complicated; they require coordination, which takes time. This fact of course inspired some of the more enthusiastic hawks to urge Obama to take action unilaterally—which might have been speedier in the short run but a disaster in the end.

The hand-wringing from all sides is reminiscent of NATO's 1999 air war against Serbia, which was mounted to protect Kosovar citizens from the savagery of Slobodan Milosevic. President Bill Clinton's decision to intervene in that internal war came at a much later point in the conflict than Barack Obama's, after the dictator had inflicted far greater damage. Clinton sidestepped the U.N. Security Council knowing that Russia and China would veto a resolution, but he did go through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose member-states saw the campaign—the first time they'd waged war together in NATO's half-century history—as a test of the alliance's continued relevance in the post-Cold War era.


Clinton was hammered from liberals and conservatives for taking this multilateral approach, which they derided as "war by committee." In his 2001 book Waging Modern War, Gen. Wesley Clark, who ran the air campaign as Supreme Allied Commander Europe, detailed the frustrations of fighting an alliance war—the endless squabbles over tactics, strategy, even which targets to strike.

Yet, Clark concluded, the results—an enduring victory, with Milosevic ousted and put on trial, the alliance renewed, and a postwar peacekeeping deployment that (however flawed) stopped the violence and sparked virtually no coalition casualties—could not have been achieved through a more "efficient" unilateral operation.

Clark made many mistakes during the campaign, not least in his expectation—which he voiced publicly—that Milosevic would surrender after a mere three days. In fact, the bombing went on for 11 weeks—as did the seething political attacks on Clinton (and Clark) for embarking on the scheme to begin with.

Who can say how long the air war over Libya will last, how fiercely it might escalate, or—this is the big question—what happens afterward?

President Obama has said that the operation's current phase will last "days, not weeks," but by this he means the phase at which U.S. forces continue to play the dominant role. (He didn't make this point clearly enough, and so, after the war goes on for two weeks, as it almost certainly will, watch for the news shows to play that clip over and over as putative proof of Obama's naiveté or deception.)

Some have scoffed at Obama's claim that this is a multilateral campaign, noting that, on the first day, the United States fired 124 Tomahawk cruise missiles, while the British fired just two.