Opponents of the Vietnam War — that seemingly endless, inconclusive, increasingly unpopular and ever-more-deadly and costly conflict — called it a “quagmire.” They said it was unwinnable and should never have been fought — and that America must avoid similar future wars. Today, our real risk of “quagmire” is Libya.
Our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president has gotten things badly wrong. By demanding Moammar Khadafy’s ouster while restricting US military force to the more limited objective of protecting innocent civilians, President Obama has set himself up for massive strategic failure.
Yet America is now committed. Khadafy won’t care that he’s being bombed for “humanitarian” rather than “regime change” reasons; it is absolutely certain that, once able, he’ll retaliate against those doing his forces mortal harm. If he keeps power over any significant part of Libya, he’ll likely return to international terrorism, as he has already threatened. He may also resume his quest for nuclear weapons — and this time we’ll have no hope of negotiating him out of it as we did in 2003-04.
Obama is hypersensitive to the Vietnam analogy — arguing, for example, as he authorized a US “surge” in Afghanistan in 2009 that it is not another Vietnam.
Of course, Vietnam became a “quagmire” because of US unwillingness to persevere to reach our legitimate objectives. Obama entirely ignored the critical point that Gen. Creighton Abrams’ strategy had placed us on the path to victory in Vietnam, and that it was a failure of American will, not battlefield defeat, that humbled us there.
And just so is Libya now increasingly a “quagmire” — because Obama’s decision to intervene was perilously late and limited, and later compounded by his mistake in drastically curtailing US strike missions. Two immediate steps are required to prevent the stalemate from becoming permanent.
First, we must reverse course immediately and declare regime change to be our military objective, followed by substantial airstrikes against Khadafy’s military forces, whether or not they are imminently threatening civilians. Even now, US airpower should be intimidating enough to shatter the regime, and dramatically close the firepower disparity on the ground to permit an opposition victory.
Our NATO allies will welcome our return to active strike missions. So too will the Arab League, whose leaders must be appalled at that Obama and NATO are risking failure, thus risking an armed and dangerous Khadafy remaining in power in their back yard. (For those who care, Security Council Resolution 1973’s authorization of force to protect Libyan civilians is so vague it can easily justify Khadafy’s overthrow: What better way to protect those civilians?)
Second, because Libya’s opposition leadership is still inchoate at best, we must identify anti-Khadafy figures who are pro-Western and find ways, overt or covert, to strengthen their hands. This will help both in opposing Khadafy today, and in any post-Khadafy government. Without confidence in the soundness of the opposition leaders, there is no justification for NATO supplying even light weapons, whose ultimate destination we can only guess. Failing to identify reliable leaders now will make any post-Khadafy regime, already problematic, potentially even more dangerous.
Thus far, however, Obama cant bring himself to act. Instead, he contends that Khadafy is being “squeezed” in other ways, most notably that his regime is running out of money — an ironic concern for a president who acts as though no such constraints apply to him.
It is similarly troubling that Obama could say, as he did last week, “I think over the long term, Khadafy will go, and we will be successful.” There is no better road to “quagmire” than to see Khadafy’s departure as a “long term” eventuality, before which he can cause incalculable damage and destruction, both within Libya and internationally through returning to terrorism.
Our president’s most muscular recent action was to co-author an opinion article with Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Nicholas Sarkozy. This plainly reflects Obama’s view that writings and speeches are all that a president is really required to do. Sadly, of course, articles and speeches are simply the articulation of policy, not policy in action. Nor do op-eds constitute leadership.
Woodrow Wilson once wrote about himself: “I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles.” Dreamer that he was, Wilson could have been describing his ideological descendant, Barack Obama. What we need right now is exactly the opposite of Wilson’s presidential persona, or we shall surely see a true quagmire in Libya.
John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, is author of “Surrender Is Not an Option.”
This article originally appeared in the New York Post