In Defense of Half Measures

Between war skeptics darkly warning of “mission creep” in Libya and hawks urging a more expansive mission, I do worry that we’re missing out on the fact that the administration does have the option of sticking with a very modest military campaign. Many observers claim to find it contradictory for the Obama administration to have said that “Gaddafi must go” while also maintaining that regime change is not the goal of the ongoing military operation there. The tension here is real, but the administration’s stated policy is both coherent and (unlike a military campaign aimed at regime change) is consistent with international law.

In essence, there’s a two-track policy process here. On one track, the US government has a declaratory policy of regime change. We are also using a number of policy levers — financial, economic, and diplomatic — in pursuit of that policy. But “we’ve decided we don’t like the incumbent dictator” is not a legally valid reason to stage an unprovoked military attack on another country. “We have a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force,” by contrast, is a valid reason. And what the UNSC was prepared to authorize is a mission aimed at prevent Gaddafi from overrunning rebel positions and slaughtering people, not a regime change mission. Threading this needle on an operational level is obviously a dicey proposition. But helping the rebels secure control over Ajdabiya and points east while declining to support offensive military operations further west is a perfectly coherent military objective that NATO could sustain at low cost.

Rory Stewart in the London Review of Books makes the case on the merits for precisely such a mission:

But the basic positions remain black and white. Do it or don’t do it, but no halfway houses. And therein lies the danger. On the World Service this afternoon, I was accused of falling between two stools. ‘On the one hand, you say the no-fly zone is humanitarian and not about regime change. On the other hand, you say that we are taking measures against the Gaddafi regime to force him to step down.’ And when I tried to make a distinction between military measures with a humanitarian purpose and civilian measures with a political purpose, the interviewer countered: ‘Surely this is the worst of all worlds.’ On the contrary, it seems to me the lesser evil. The no-fly zone is preferable to seeming to countenance and endorse Gaddafi’s actions; and better than putting troops on the ground to force regime change. But such measures are difficult to explain and sell.


That seems fine to me, albeit a possibly questionable use of resources in a cost-benefit sense. My fear, however, is that it won’t be politically sustainable and Obama/Sarkozy/Cameron will get baited into a scenario where anything less than total rebel victory counts as “defeat” and therefore we end up pouring more resources into a regime change mission.