In my March 4, 2011 column at Foreign Policy, I first drew the comparison between the Obama administration's handling of Libya and the situation in Iraq 20 years ago, just after Kuwait's liberation from Saddam Hussein's forces. Events in Libya since then and Obama's speech last night have only reinforced the comparison.
After the triumph in Kuwait, Bush the Elder was eager to leave the impression of a clean and decisive military action. It was not to be. Rebellions inside Iraq soon broke out and televised images of cold, starving, and harried Kurdish refugees forced a reluctant U.S. administration to intervene. Similarly, two weeks ago, the Obama team was rejecting entreaties to intervene in Libya. But the rapid approach of a Qaddafi armored column on Benghazi -- and the prospect of a televised slaughter -- caused Obama to suddenly reverse course.
Just like Bush the Elder, Obama is operating under a U.N. Security Council resolution that was the lowest common denominator he could get passed. He has legal authority to protect civilians but not to remove Qaddafi or explicitly take sides in the civil war. In 1991, Bush and his advisers argued that they lacked legal authority to march on Baghdad and remove Saddam, and that to try to do so would break up the international coalition that had backed the Kuwait war. In explaining why he will not use U.S. military power to remove Qaddafi, Obama made the same argument in his speech last night. And just like Bush the Elder, Obama is hoping that sanctions, vague threats, or a palace coup will remove the dictator.
Just as in Iraq after 1991, a frustrating stalemate is still the most likely outcome. According to the BBC, the rebel advance on Sirte, which over the past two days had looked so promising, has been halted by a pro-Qaddafi counterattack. Echoing the back-and-forth along this same coast road between 1940 and 1942, today the rebels are in retreat back to Bin Jawad, 150 kilometers east of Sirte. Yesterday, Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Africa Command and the outgoing coalition commander, warned that Qaddafi's military power still far exceeded that of the rebels.
Obama explicitly rejected the measures Bush the Younger employed for Iraq, viewing them as both extralegal and a foolish over-commitment of U.S. resources. But perhaps Obama can say that now because Libya has yet to become a decade-old stalemate against a tyrant that Iraq would become after Bush the Elder left office. Should, as seems likely, a de facto partition form which leaves Qaddafi in power in the west, Obama or his successors will face the same situation in Libya that Bush the Elder's successors inherited in Iraq.
Obama may decide to exceed his legal mandate far quicker than Bush the Younger allegedly did in Iraq. The first such decision would be an order to use U.S. air power not simply to destroy Qaddafi tanks marauding against rebel towns in the east, but to attack Qaddafi military forces in the countryside that are in contact with rebel ground forces. The second would be to start a large-scale Special Forces-led unconventional warfare program to stand up a proper rebel army, one that is capable of assaulting all the way to Tripoli. These measures are required to oust Qaddafi. They also go well beyond the authority of UNSCR 1970 and 1973.
Last night, Obama made the case for intervention in Libya. But he didn't explain how he and the coalition will avoid an endless military stalemate. Hoping for a coup in Tripoli is not a strategy. Obama explained how he will not repeat George W. Bush's mistakes. But in doing so, he is repeating those of George H.W. Bush. The Obama team thinks it has learned the lessons of Iraq. But the history it studies should start in 1990, not 2003.