Is there a Plan?

Foreign Policy scooped the US broadsheet press by a day over the weekend with its breakdown of what persuaded President Obama to undertake his volte face on Libyan intervention. Here’s their line-up of those in favour of and opposed to intervention at an “extremely contentious” meeting at the White House on Tuesday night:

Inside the administration, senior officials were lined up on both sides. Pushing for military intervention was a group of NSC staffers including Samantha Power, NSC senior director for multilateral engagement; Gayle Smith, NSC senior director for global development; and Mike McFaul, NSC senior director for Russia. [Hillary Clinton, also in favour of action, joined by phone from North Africa.] 

On the other side of the ledger were some Obama administration officials who were reportedly wary of the second- and third-degree effects of committing to a lengthy military mission in Libya. These officials included National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security AdvisorDenis McDonough. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also opposed to attacking Libya andhad said as much in several public statements.

But I think it’s this that’s the standout quote from the article:

“In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook,” said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. “The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one.”

Clemons raises a pretty key question here: is there a plan? By all means let’s undertake UN-mandated military interventions to observe the Responsibility to Protect. But you have to wonder whether anyone’s thought this deployment through, or whether it’s yet another case of ‘Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it’. I agree with James Fallows in The Atlantic:

The most predictable failure in modern American military policy has been the reluctance to ask, And what happens then? We invade Iraq to push Saddam Hussein from power. Good. What happens then? Obama increases our commitment in Afghanistan and says that “success” depends on the formation of a legitimate, honest Afghan government on a certain timetable. The deadline passes. What happens then? One reason why Pentagon officials, as opposed to many politicians, have generally been cool to the idea of “preventive” strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities is that many have gone through the exercise of asking, What happens then? 

Launching air strikes is the easiest, most exciting, and most dependably successful stage of a modern war, from the US / Western perspective. TV coverage is wall-to-wall and awestruck. The tech advantages are all on our side. Few Americans, or none at all, are hurt. It takes a while to see who is hurt on the ground.

But after this spectacular first stage of air war, what happens then? If the airstrikes persuade Qaddafi and his forces just to quit, great! But what if they don’t? What happens when a bomb lands in the “wrong” place? As one inevitably will. When Arab League supporters of the effort see emerging “flaws” and “abuses” in its execution? As they will. When the fighting goes on and the casualties mount up and a commitment meant to be “days, not weeks” cannot “decently” be abandoned, after mere days, with so many lives newly at stake? When the French, the Brits, and other allies reach the end of their military resources — or their domestic support — and more of the work naturally shifts to the country with more weapons than the rest of the world combined?