This Week at War: Libya's Endgame

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) Libya's rebels scramble to hold out

2) Think grand strategy is too hard? It's really not, say Kaplan and Kaplan.

Libya's rebels scramble to hold out

The armed uprising against Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi appears to be cracking, and it may collapse before U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have sorted out their policies toward the rebellion. Qaddafi, the rebels, and Obama will each have to quickly consider their political and military strategies as what may be the endgame approaches in Libya.

According to the BBC, military forces loyal to Qaddafi have broken through the rebel's defenses outside Ras Lanuf, the oil town that was the western perimeter of the rebel's stronghold over the eastern half of Libya. A few days earlier, rebels were ejected from Bin Jawad, the next town further to the west along the coast road. The risk now is that rebel morale and cohesion will shatter and that they will be unable to establish another defensive line before loyalist mechanized forces advance down the coast road toward Benghazi, the capital of the rebellion. Further complicating the rebel's task is the apparent collapse of rebel resistance in the western town of Zawiya, near Tripoli. Pacification of Zawiya would allow Qaddafi to redeploy reinforcements for the push on Benghazi.

Qaddafi's key vulnerability at this moment is the ability of his forces to maintain his advantage in mobility. The combatants are fighting down the coast road and the adjoining open terrain between towns. The military advantage will go to the side that keeps its tanks and infantry fighting vehicles -- all highly susceptible to breakdowns -- repaired and in the fight. Should Qaddafi ultimately win the war, those most deserving of credit might be those contractor mechanics he has undoubtedly hired to keep his armored vehicles running.

Knocked back on its heels and perhaps with its time nearly up, the Libyan resistance has belatedly launched the political element of its strategy. The Libyan National Council, the rebel leadership group, rolled out its members to a Wall Street Journal reporter covering the war from Benghazi. The rebels were careful to put a moderate and technocratic face on their movement. The rebellion scored a success when it convinced the French government to officially recognize it. And in a trip next week to Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has agreed to meet with representatives of Libya's resistance.

President Barack Obama's administration has maintained its own resistance to getting involved in the Libyan civil war. According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration has decided to take action in Libya only as a member of a much broader international coalition, for example after intervention has been approved by the Arab League, NATO, or the U.N. Security Council. Approval by these organizations typically requires consensus, which is bad news for the rebels holding out against Qaddafi's counterattacks.

Obama undoubtedly knows that he will face intense criticism if he stands by while Qaddafi ruthlessly crushes the rebellion. Knowing this, we must presume that outcome, assuming Obama allows it to occur, is part of a larger calculation of risks. What might those calculations be? Topping the list might be that Obama and his advisors have decided that they want to encourage no more rebellions in the Arab world, particularly in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere on the Sunni side of the Persian Gulf. Egypt's Tahrir Square may have been exhilarating, but Obama and his advisors may now have had enough of that kind of excitement. If it will incentivize tranquility in Riyadh, Obama may be —to let Qaddafi win this one.

Think grand strategy is too hard? It's really not, say Kaplan and Kaplan

The latest issue of the National Interest features an essay on America's grand strategy by Robert D. Kaplan (recent author of Monsoon and many other books on current history) and Stephen S. Kaplan, who recently retired after a 30-year career at the CIA. Titled America Primed, Kaplan and Kaplan puncture the myth that an effective grand strategy is a puzzle too difficult for Washington's statesmen to solve. In fact, the Kaplans argue that the grand-strategy puzzle practically solves itself -- as long as future U.S. presidents exercise some restraint, prudently tend to their military power, and can finesse a few straightforward dilemmas.

The United States' paramount geostrategic objective should be to ensure that no one power or alliance of powers effectively dominates Eurasia. What will make grand strategy so easy, they suggest, is that all of the other consequential powers -- they mention China, Russia, and India -- have problems of their own and possess few of the advantages held by the United States. And competition among Russia, China, and India should ensure that Eurasian power remains divided.

Kaplan and Kaplan explain those strategic advantages the United States enjoys that will keep it on top for many more decades. None of the three aforementioned consequential powers has the global alliance system that the United States has throughout the "Anglosphere," Europe, and East Asia. Compared with the United States, China, Russia, and India lack the soft-power stature and skills to build such alliances, at least for many years into the future. Best of all, according to the Kaplans, a bit of a growing military menace in China and Russia is actually a good thing from Washington's perspective; it focuses minds among America's allies in Asia and Europe and makes them more eager and cooperative partners. For the same reasons, they argue, there is little to fear from Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs -- the reaction by America's Sunni-Arab allies will boost Washington's influence in the region and may even lead to a rapprochement between Israel and the Arabs.

The Kaplans' advice for Central Asia is two-fold: Get tough with a misbehaving Pakistan, and get out of Afghanistan, without leaving a mess behind. Here, the Kaplans haven't figured out the Catch-22 that Afghanistan has become any better than anyone else. The United States can't get tough with Pakistan while it still has a large army in Afghanistan. But neither do policymakers in Washington seem —to take the risk of a collapse in Afghanistan even though it is clear they desperately need the $100 billion spent annually in Afghanistan for air and naval modernization in the western Pacific. The Kaplans argue, "[T]he United States can only start to withdraw from Afghanistan, without its current regime being toppled shortly thereafter, if Islamabad fundamentally alters its policy. Pakistan's military and ISI will not do that without the application of more political and economic pressure." But Washington cannot apply that pressure while Islamabad controls the supply routes, and thus the war, in Afghanistan. The Kaplans don't have a convincing answer to this dilemma.

In the Kaplans' tour of the globe, many of the world's most significant geopolitical problems, apparently governed by the forces of regional self-interest, seem to practically balance themselves, at least from Washington's perspective. It would be comforting to think that the American electorate won't have to reliably elect a succession of Bismarckian geniuses in order to maintain global stability. Unfortunately, it won't be that easy.

The Kaplans describe what could be an effective operating principle for American grand strategy, namely regional balances around the Eurasian periphery, backstopped by U.S. security agreements with allies in each region.

To make such a system work, U.S. statesmen will have to display wisdom along three dimensions. First, they will have to ensure that the United States will continue to be able to afford the required military power. Second, they will have to convince allies that the United States still has the will to use its military power while at the same time not squandering that power fruitlessly. Third, U.S. statesmen will have to avoid the problem of "moral hazard" with its allies, convincing them to make significant contributions to the regional balancing system while those allies simultaneously know that the United States will be their backstop (or "bailout").

These are timeless dilemmas for which neither the Kaplans nor anyone else has written a formula. Future U.S. presidents might not have to all be Bismarcks. But neither can they count on grand strategy taking care of itself.

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The Libyan rise up has all but moved into the final stages of a revolution against the government of Moammar Gadhafi. Rebels have taken much of the city of Tripoli. The Libyan dictator is currently wanted, dead or alive, with a bounty being offered for his arrest. Article resource: Libyan rebels put bounty on Gadhafi as noose tightens.For months, rebels and pro-government forces have been contesting a bitter struggle in the North African nation of Libya. United Nations forces have been delivering assistance to the rebels. Recently, Libyan rebels entered Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and have been capturing key strongholds of the Gadhafi government, capturing his former residence.

Madhu:

I hope you don't stay away long because this is a wonderful observation.

"Again, for the naifs and overly empathetic Stockholm syndrome victims: the Indians aren't provoking anyone."

I've never heard anybody compare our nutty policy toward the Pak Army/ISI as comparable to the Stockholm syndrome but it makes a lot of sense. Good job.

One last comment (I always forget something):

Again, for the naifs and overly empathetic Stockholm syndrome victims: the Indians aren't provoking anyone. Their military is firmly under civilian control and they have always been slow moving when it comes to external threats. Strategic laggards. We are being threatened by that which we partially funded, trained, and turned a blind eye to....

So stop blaming the neighbors. It's disgusting.

(Not directed at you, Mr. Haddick :) )

I have to take another break from this place. I don't have the personality for all of this.

How do some of you do this for a living?

And competition among Russia, China, and India should ensure that Eurasian power remains divided.

The Kaplans' advice for Central Asia is two-fold: Get tough with a misbehaving Pakistan, and get out of Afghanistan, without leaving a mess behind. Here, the Kaplans haven't figured out the Catch-22 that Afghanistan has become any better than anyone else. The United States can't get tough with Pakistan while it still has a large army in Afghanistan.

There is short term and there is long term.

Unfortunately, it seems our defense and intelligence community are in the process of convicing themselves that they alone hold the key to the subcontinent. We walked away before! Sec. Gates said in a hearing that if only we had built schools in Afghanistan in the 90s we might not be there today.

We helped build plenty of "schools" in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 80s, and helped with the curriculum too, but that didn't turn out so well....

It's too late to get "tough." Getting tough requires the right timing, getting everyone on board (there are about as many Pakistan policies as there are agencies and departments and members of the Armed Forces Committee and so on and so forth. People play a game of monetary, er, attrition with us by playing off all of our different decision-makers) and a sense of reality.

We don't speak with one voice, we keep changing generals and envoys, we alternately threaten and cajole but don't follow-up on any threat, or even, cajoling, and we plain don't understand the region.

Another one of my nutty theories but it has some merit, doesn't it?

So short-term and long-term are too different animals. And long-term has less to do with logistics and more to do with the explicit threats. Want to see what I mean?

Since time and space would be of greatest importance to Pakistan, if this nation does not preempt Indias Cold Start, the result could be a decision to use low-yield tactical nuclear weapons to dislodge the IBG. And this would be the beginning of Armageddon. The fact that Indias new doctrine was not put into effect following 26/11 (the Mumbai attacks) points to dithering politico-military minds as much as it does to the danger of actually executing a not-so-cold plan.

For the naifs among us (and I am shocked at how many I encounter on think-tank or military blogs), that is called a THREAT.

http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2011-03/indias-cold-start-too-hot

It was stupid to increase aid money (money is fungible, so that you can build both schools and bombs) and to create a big footprint "AfPak" policy centered more on Pak than Af.

So let's not talk logistics. Let's talk rank fear, threats, and intimidation. And I'm not talking "fears of encirclement or invasion" or any such nonsense. I'm talking straight out intimidation.

I don't like this topic. It brings out the worst in me and then I get cynical.

Human beings are a freakshow.

You always do a nice job with these, Mr. Haddick.

The Anglosphere concept interests me enormously, especially the trade and soft-power aspects. I don't look at the Anglosphere as merely a containment strategy, but as a more of a "stability" strategy. Hmmmm....does that even make sense? Not sure.

It's a wide-ranging and malleable concept, it appears :)

How does the Anglosphere concept fit into the advisor or "strengthening partner capacity" concepts? In addition, within the broad rubric of the Anglosphere theory, India is a member - so what does that do to the balance of power equation that the Kaplans talk about? At any rate, I found that a very interesting article. In terms of the Anglosphere and soft power, Sadanand Dhume (in the Wall Street Journal) had an interesting article on the tremendous curiosity in India about all things American. Also, this:

This monograph examines Indias rapidly expanding network of influence in Africa. The author analyzes the countrys burgeoning public and private investments in the region as well as its policies vis-à-vis African regional organizations and individual states, especially in the security sector.

Sort of Anglosphere-ish (if you go by James Bennett, and we should if it's Anglosphere-ish), and fits into my nutty "stability" theory. Always with the theories....that's me. Sheesh.

http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=1051

Stability > containment, if you see what I mean :)

Our Cold War containment doctrine was both stable and unstable. Unstably stable. This time, we should try more stably stable, if such a thing is even possible in the realm of human interactions.

After yesterday's congressional hearing, the Director of National Intelligence provided a dire warning on what would happen without intervention...and subsequently was blasted by congress and the media. The DNI's assessment was very inconvenient for the administration because it started to restrict their perceived maneuver room. Clapper did what he told the President he would do...provide a straight-forward, honest assessment..."call it like it is." We'll soon find out if that's the kind of DNI the President really wants. If Qaddafi continues to regain lost ground over the next week, Clapper's critics will be eating crow.

"Obama undoubtedly knows that he will face intense criticism if he stands by while Qaddafi ruthlessly crushes the rebellion. Knowing this, we must presume that outcome, assuming Obama allows it to occur, is part of a larger calculation of risks."

Oh, I don't know. I think rather than any wise calculation of risk, the administration is just occupying itself with "but on the other hand, then maybe, but maybe not, but if it does then we can't know that, unless we do therefore we won't..." until the whole thing resolves itself, bloodily. Then they won't have to think about it anymore.