Belmont Club

A Goal Too Far

Britain and France urged NATO to step up its airstrikes against Khadaffi’s forces in Libya. “Rebel leaders have complained bitterly of a lull that seemed to coincide with the handoff of responsibility from the allied coalition to NATO, about 10 days ago.” Obama is not winning. The rebels and the coalition partners know it, so they want the President to try harder. The NYT rhetorically asked whether President Obama can “live with a stalemate” and found that the answer of Secretary of State Clinton was both “yes” and “no”.

Asked on Monday whether the United States could accept a cease-fire proposed by the African Union that would effectively leave Colonel Qaddafi in control of part of the country, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hedged. First, she said, the Libyan government would have to allow food, water and electricity into cities it has cut off and allow in humanitarian assistance. Then, she added, “These terms are nonnegotiable.”

But she immediately reiterated that ultimately nothing could be resolved without “the departure of Qaddafi from power, and from Libya.” The statement seemed to underscore the limbo the administration finds itself in, with the rebels unable to achieve regime change on their own, and Washington and its NATO allies hesitant to leap deeper into a civil war.

That was the expected answer. When you come to a fork in the road, take it. But if the NATO allies wanted the heat turned up on the Duck of Death, Pakistan wanted it turned down on al-Qaeda. Islamabad demanded the US suspend drone strikes against “militants on its territory” and reduce “the number of U.S. intelligence and Special Operations personnel in the country”. Some US officials suggest that the real reason Pakistan wants the agents out is that the US may learn too much about its links with terrorist organizations. So it is holding bilateral relationships hostage in order to keep the lid on things.

Some U.S. officials believe Pakistan is using the threat to cut off intelligence cooperation to get greater oversight of covert U.S. activities on its territory. Of special concern to Pakistanis are American efforts to gather intelligence on a number of militant groups with ties to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network. Lashkar was responsible for the 2008 attack on Mumbai; the Haqqani network is one of the pillars of the Taliban insurgency and is based in North Waziristan, a border tribal area frequently targeted by CIA drones.

Will Britain and France get their way? Will Pakistan?

Many of the difficulties of coalition warfare spring from the circumstance that allies wants to use US hardware and muscle — but only for their own purposes. The Globe and Mail says that Pakistan wants to control the drones. Dual-control over the drones and an effective monopoly of ground intelligence will probably mean the drone fleet will effectively become Islamabad’s. If the US doesn’t agree then they’ll ensure that as in Libya, Obama faces a stalemate.

Pakistan wants hundreds of CIA agents to leave and new, strict, dual-control limits on “assassination” strikes by drones which, when they go wrong, kill civilians and foster widespread anger and feelings of powerlessness in Pakistan.

Napoleon regarded coalition warfare as a sure recipe for failure. Since he was ultimately defeated by a coalition, it is difficult consider him correct. Nevertheless coalitions are difficult to hold together. “Each party has its own agenda on how to fight the war, when to fight the war, and what conflict termination will look like.” Therefore the key to keeping a coalition together is statesmanship by the dominant partner.

The first requirement of a coalition leader is to frame the endeavor on the basis of a single sustaining common set of interests. The second is to ensure that everybody has skin in the game. That is, they would suffer personal loss if the coalition goals were not attained.

The obvious problem with President Obama’s Libya strategy is that it not only lacks a single sustaining interest (Hillary can’t even make up her mind over whether it is “regime change” or “humanitarian protection”) but the one articulated is almost certainly not the real interest which binds Britain, France and Italy to the US.

The Libyan war is about oil, and President Obama has failed to frame it in the only terms which can bind his European partners to the endeavor. Donald Trump, when asked by Meredith Veira what his Libya policy would be, answered that he would defeat Khadaffi “only if we get to keep the oil”. Whatever else the Donald’s shortcomings may be, his experience as a dealmaker enabled him to zero in on the essential problem without the blinkers of political correctness.

Moreover, Obama didn’t force the Europeans to invest skin in the game early enough. The Europeans contributed only a desultory amount of military effort at the outset and let Obama put American prestige on the line. Now that the President wants to hand it to them, they are passing the bill back to him. Britain and France want more “NATO” airstrikes. And can Obama refuse? He’s already bought the first round of drinks. All his European allies have to do is order a second round and watch who the waiter bills.

The same defect bedevils President Obama’s strategy in Pakistan. The problem, plainly put, is that his partner against al-Qaeda, Pakistan, is also his enemy. They do not have a single binding interest or shared view in which hostilities will end. It is not in Pakistan’s interests to defeat al-Qaeda. On the contrary, it is in Islamabad’s interests to foster “militants” and part of their past strategy, to breed terrorist organizations, both for use against India and to shake down the West. Moreover, since it is Obama’s skin, not Pakistan’s, which is in the game, they can play hardball. Obama trumpeted his “war of necessity”, campaigned on “ending it where it began”, contrasted his brilliance to the chimplike idiocy of “George Bush” all over the airwaves. In other words, he bet the farm and they have him over a barrel.

Now the Pakistanis are demanding that Obama hand over the keys to the drones or force him to publicly eat crow, probably in time for 2012.

Obama’s continuous criticism of the lack of coalition support in Iraq (which BTW was not true) obscured the one advantage George Bush had. Bush could call the strategic shots. By being the dominant partner in Iraq, Bush could point the car where he wanted to go. And even a chimp could eventually learn to drive in a straight line. By contrast, Obama’s post Bush strategy was to share the wheel with his archenemy. By linking Iraq to Iran, and attempting to make them his ‘partner’ for a grand bargain, he gave Teheran implicit veto power over everything he did.  That has kept him from acting vigorously against Syria or Iran. They are his partners in peace, just like Pakistan. That has kept him from pointing things where he wants to go, assuming he knew where to go.

“A group of deer led by a lion will always defeat a group of lions led by a deer.” Donald Trump expressed surprise to Meredith Veira that Libya could actually defeat the United States of America. But he should not have been shocked. Anyone can outrun a car that turns in circles.


“No Way In” print edition at Amazon
Tip Jar or Subscribe for $5