He Came, He Saw, He Led from the Rear
Obama is getting a lot of praise for his recent successes in foreign policy, particularly the new and clever doctrine of "leading from behind," which, we're assured, is superior to the practice of earlier presidents such as FDR and Harry Truman. Along with the usual left-liberal suspects we've heard from John McCain, who really should know better. (The latest on record is the great Geraldo Rivera, who paused from interviewing dolphins or whatever he's been doing lately to inform us that Obama has mastered the most "efficient" foreign policy of any president -- granted that "efficiency" is not the first thing to come to mind in this context.)
Of course, the actual target is George W. Bush and his handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. With his negative domestic record, Obama the Conqueror is, ever so ironically, attempting to fill the gap with foreign victories, over and above all in Libya, which was gained without pressure, without loss, without worry...
...without even being involved, if the record means anything. If one thing is clear, it's the fact that U.S. forces were at no point meaningfully engaged in the Libya uprising. The bulk of foreign intervention -- mostly air strikes, with limited special forces activity and operational planning assistance -- was carried out by the U.K. and France, with minor assistance from other NATO states. Even this came reluctantly. Both David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy waited the better part of a month before taking action. Much of this time was taken up by obtaining a resolution from the U.N., without which no one dares rescue a cat from a tree these days.
Even then, intervention was undertaken with extreme reluctance, and in large part only to avoid the moral condemnation that would have followed the wholesale massacre of civilians after a Gaddafi victory. A month into the revolt, his troops had driven the rebels into Cyrenaica and were closing in on the last few rebel-held cities.
The March 18th NATO intervention prevented that horror. It was at this point that U.S. involvement peaked with a handful of fighter-bomber sorties. Apart from some strange reports of U.S. aviators flying off the carrier De Gaulle with French squadrons, that was the extent of participation by American personnel. (Some U.S. drone strikes were also carried out, to the number of 94 -- not a lot over an eight-month period.)
But NATO's action came at the cost of a stalemate. Britain and France were both unable and unwilling to make the necessary moves to defeat Gaddafi outright. They ran out of dumb bombs after the first week's action, a shortage that had to be made up by the U.S. (It is this supply role that probably accounts for the billion-dollar cost to the U.S. taxpayer.) NATO was also reluctant to press the limits of U.N. Resolution 1973, which authorized only the protection of the civilian population. Numerous legal positivists of the halfwit type in both media and elsewhere insisted that this "forbade" any effort to overthrow Gaddafi, as if the resolution somehow amounted to a retroactive pardon for his various crimes and atrocities.
It was the rebels, acting virtually alone (possibly with the aid of British planners, still the gold standard even in this day and age), who broke the stalemate. Their enthusiasm and élan overcame lack of training, poor leadership, and inept execution to slowly push back Gaddafi's loyalists, better-armed and trained but without much reason to put their lives on the line. After a seesaw campaign throughout the spring and summer, the rebels at last broke through, taking Tripoli, moving on to the southwestern desert, and pushing up the coast to Sirte, where Gaddafi was rousted from his culvert and executed. (They all go the same way, don't they, these hard men, the killers of millions? Whining and broken, not an ounce of spirit among them. Hitler cowering in his bunker, Saddam Hussein strung up like a horse thief. Only Mussolini, the last one you'd expect, broke the pattern with his manly and honorable attempt to save his young mistress from execution.)
Clearly, this victory belongs to the rebels. As amateurish as they might have been, and no matter how they may fumble it now, they earned their triumph. A polite round of applause must also go to Cameron and Sarkozy, for not folding up. But as for Obama -- he deserves exactly what "leading from behind" would have earned him in the days of the horsemen. (Back then it was an insult, reserved for commanders too cowardly to mix it with the rest of the troops.)
But there's also a deeper issue: the fact that the campaign was a botch from beginning to end. From the point of view of the West, the Libya revolt was fought almost completely with political considerations overriding all tactical and operational concerns. As a result, it went on longer, cost more, and was more destructive and disruptive than it had to be. People are dead today because NATO couldn't handle it right. To think that 25 years ago this outfit thought it could take on the Soviet Union!
The operational problem involving the use of irregular troops is straightforward. Supporting forces must make up for whatever weaknesses the irregulars might display. In Afghanistan, this was accomplished by using U.S. strategic airpower in the form of heavy bombers to wipe out Taliban concentrations, after which Northern Alliance troops, with a stiffening of American special forces, swept in to mop up. These tactics wrapped up the campaign in short order. (The ensuing insurgency is something else altogether.)
The process of evening the odds was rendered more difficult In Libya due to the fact that Gaddafi's loyalists were trained and well-armed, particularly as regards artillery and armor. Gaddafi's armor was nullified, but rather late in the game -- it should have been the first order of business. The artillery proved a tougher nut. Gaddafi's Soviet-era guns were a major reason for the seesaw battles that marked the campaign. Loyalist troops driven from an urban area would shell the rebels relentlessly until they broke, with the process beginning anew the next day. Towns like Misrata and Ziwaya were transformed into shattered wastelands by this style of combat.
The third problematic element was the perennial challenge of air support. Lacking artillery and armor, the rebels required constant close air support. They seldom got it. The difficulty here is that air support is time-sensitive. Aircraft when needed are needed immediately, with as little delay as possible. NATO fighter-bombers flying in from bases in Italy were taking half an hour or more to arrive in the battlespace, by which time the tactical situation would be certain to have changed. This rendered them next to useless in the air-support role, and doubtlessly cost the rebels a number of victories. Until late in the day, the rebels also lacked trained Forward Air Controllers (FACs) to direct the incoming planes. Without such assets, you cannot run a useful air campaign.
The solution would have been use of naval air power -- carriers only a few miles offshore, cutting the response time to a minimum, and increasing aircraft loiter time over the battlefield. Trained FACs traveling with rebel troops could have provided targets and also guided in precision weapons with lasers. This would in short order have destroyed Gaddafi's armor and artillery and broken the morale of his forces. The revolution would very likely have been wrapped up within a matter of weeks, with far less mortality and property damage than actually occurred.
It failed to happen that way for a number of reasons. The U.K. had only recently decommissioned the Ark Royal and its Harrier squadrons that could have provided support. While the French De Gaulle took up some slack, at 38,000 tons, the ship is scarcely a third the size of a Nimitz-class carrier and fields fewer than half the aircraft. The De Gaulle also has a lot of operational problems, and French pilots are neither trained nor experienced in air support. (This may well explain the otherwise incomprehensible reported presence of U.S. Navy pilots aboard the De Gaulle.) The solution would have been the appearance of a Nimitz-class carrier with its 90+ aircraft contingents and experienced pilots. But this, of course, never happened.
It never happened because Obama didn't want it to happen. A U.S. carrier would have established too major and noticeable an American presence. We would no longer be "leading from behind" or exercising "smart power," but acting with that bad old "shock and awe" attitude of the Bush era.
So American power was curtailed, and as a result the war dragged on with many Libyans who might otherwise have lived being killed.
The Libyan intervention is not a model for anything. It is not a feather in Obama's cap, and it will quite rightly do nothing for his dismal reelection chances. As in the case of the economy, health care, and [put-your-favorite-fiasco-here], people who know what they're doing have been booted aside in favor of hacks who will do it Obama's way without asking questions or making suggestions. Fortunately, it didn't cost us much this time -- the Libyans paid our way -- but if it's attempted again in a more critical situation, it could very well blow up in our faces. The effort to create an Obama the Great, conqueror on the cheap, needs to be cut short. It has cost lives already, and it should cost no more of them.
The overthrow of a tyrant should be a moment of pride for the West, and the U.S. in particular. We've done it a lot over the past seventy years, and we should be getting good at it. But if we are to continue -- and we should (as the standard-bearer for democracy we can do no less) -- we need to avoid the example of people who turn everything they touch into a circus.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.