Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: Hold That Model

My column this week at Foreign Policy explains why the Obama administration's "Libya Model" for intervention is far from proven.


It's too early to call Libya a success story

This week, administration officials reacted to the sudden collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi's rule in Libya with both caution and pride in both the international coalition they helped build and the belief that their method differed from that of their predecessor. Speaking to students at the Naval Postgraduate School, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described the Libya coalition as "the kind of partnership and alliances that we need to have for the future." Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes declared the Obama administration's intervention in Libya a "contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," referring to the Bush administration's Iraq strategy in 2003.

When Panetta and Rhodes argue for the utility of international alliances, the advantages of having indigenous forces leading internal regime change, and the benefits of burden-sharing, they will attract very few sparring partners. If this is what constitutes the "Libya Model," the model will draw few critics. But since the Libyan revolution is far from over, one would assume the model must also be far from complete. And whatever form it finally takes, it remains to be seen whether its features will transfer to similar crises elsewhere.

The administration asserts that the U.S. military will have no footprint at all inside Libya. But that pledge assumes either a benign ending to Libya's ongoing revolution or that -- should social breakdown in post-Qaddafi Libya occur -- a U.N. peacekeeping force without a U.S. troop component will be able to stabilize the country.

The challenge for Obama will be how he and his team respond should sustained violence, a humanitarian crisis, large refugee flows, or a hostile government begin to emerge in Libya. For example, it was Obama himself who agreed to triple the U.S. troop headcount in Afghanistan. He agreed to these increases because, in his view, a lighter footprint was failing to protect U.S. interests. It is reasonable to hope that the Libyan rebels, as Rhodes surmises, will be better than an occupying army at stabilizing post-Qaddafi Libya. What remains to be seen is whether the United States will avert its eyes if this proves not to be the case.

The administration seemed pleased that it arranged a supporting role for the United States in the Libyan intervention. They believe they can point to this role to show that burden-sharing among alliance members is no longer just a slogan. They were able to limit U.S. military participation to mainly supporting tasks, which put Europe's air forces on the front line. And in contrast to the Bush years, by keeping the United States away from the lead role, political opposition to the intervention was diffused.

Obama may wish to replicate this supporting role for the United States during future crises but it is hard to see where else in the world such conditions would reappear. Britain, France, Italy, and others in Europe perceived critical interests in the Libyan crisis and pushed for action, which the United States eventually supported. Through the NATO alliance, the United States had long military experience with these countries and could thus quickly establish a workable military operation. However, when significant crises occur, say, around the Persian Gulf or in the Asia-Pacific area and critical U.S. interests are at stake, the United States will be less likely to find allies with the same motivation, the same military capabilities, and with the same combat experience to fight alongside its forces. In these cases, the United States will find itself back in the lead, an arrangement its allies have long become used to and likely prefer.

In Libya, the greatest risks for NATO and the United States are just beginning. The Obama team has placed its bets on the rebels and on an alliance structure that has more equitably shared the burden. But the most difficult tests of the Obama team's Libyan Model still lie ahead.