Obama Libya policy: Why he is taking so much time deciding what to do.

Military analysis.
March 9 2011 6:01 PM

No-Rush Zone

Why Obama is taking his time deciding what to do about Libya.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Libya conflict.

War in Libya. Click image to expand.
Rebel fighters near Ras Lanuf, Libya

Is President Obama dithering over 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.

In the past week or so, a diverse array of commentators—Republican hawks, the usual neocons, and some normally gun-shy Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry—has called on Obama to take action now. Some have charged Obama with queasiness or lack of principles for not charging the ramparts from the get-go. But one can imagine several very good reasons for the president's … let's call it caution.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have been outspokenly leery of military options. Some scoff at their hesitation, and it is true that, for the past 40 years, U.S. military leaders have tended, more than many of their civilian bosses, to warn of war's risks. The thing is, they often do know what they're talking about.

Take the most popular proposal on the table, the imposition of a no-fly zone over at least parts of Libya, to prevent Moammar Qaddafi's pilots from bombing or strafing the rebels fighting for his overthrow. As Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the JCS chairman, have said, a no-fly zone is no small matter. It is, for one thing, an act of war and therefore prompts the question: Do you really want to get into this? Do you want to get into another war in another Muslim country in the Middle East?

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Leon Wieseltier recently wrote in the New Republic, "I do not see a Middle East rising up in anger at the prospect of American intervention." Oh, really. Where did we last see that degree of blitheness?

But let's say Obama was fine with taking the risk, assuring the nation and the world that he wouldn't fall into the escalation trap—that he'd order U.S. fighter planes in the area (an air base in Italy, an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean) to enforce a no-fly zone and go no further. There would still be some things to figure out. For instance: How much of Libya do you want to restrict? (All of it? Just the Mediterranean coastal area? Just the eastern territories?) What are the rules of engagement? (Do we shoot down all aircraft that enter the zone, fixed-wing and helicopters? What if a Libyan pilot fires back? Do we destroy their air defenses ahead of time or just when they turn on their radar? If Qaddafi's planes keep flying, do we bomb his runways? If the planes are down but Qaddafi sends in tanks, do we bomb their tanks?) Will other nations send their planes, too, or just their blessings, if that? How long do you want to keep this up?

These questions, and many more, have to be answered before the military can even begin to plan a campaign.

But even before any of these questions can be asked, there's a more basic question still: What is the desired goal of this action? Is it to pressure Qaddafi to stand down? Is it to provide air cover to the rebels, so they can fight Qaddafi's ground forces on more equal footing? Whatever the goal, if the no-fly zone doesn't get us there, should we try other means? And if not, why not? As Clausewitz wrote, war is politics by other means. War is fought for a political objective. If that objective is important enough to justify one form of military intervention, why not another form? What is the goal? How far are you willing to go to accomplish the goal? How important is the goal?