The military actions against Qaddafi in support of Odyssey Dawn in Libya over the past several days have widely been described as a success but questions remain.
After a Tomahawk cruise missile strike on the Bab al-Azizia government compound in Tripoli on Sunday evening, some are questioning whether coalition forces are attempting to kill Qaddafi and essentially institute regime change or rather downgrade Qaddafi’s military capabilities. Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, and the current head of coalition military operations over Libya, pushed back at suggestions that the attack on Bab al-Azizia was because of its close proximity to Qaddafi’s residence. Gen. Ham suggested that the attack was because the compound housed air-defense systems and was viewed to be part of Qaddafi’s overall command and control capabilities. Ham suggested that by attacking the facility “the regime’s ability to control its military forces in the attack on civilians” has been diminished even further.
Addressing the charge that coalition forces are targeting Col. Qaddafi, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney said, “At this particular point, I can guarantee that he’s not on a targeting list.” Gortney continued, “If he happens to be in a place – if he’s inspecting a surface-to-air missile site, [and] we don’t have any idea that he’s there or not – then, yeah.” A number of experts and U.S. policymakers have expressed reservations that the overall aim of the mission is ambiguous. On President Obama’s political left, members of Congress have expressed unhappiness that they were not consulted before the military campaign began.
In particular, Democratic House members and some Republicans have argued that the president usurped Congress’s war making power as established in Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. On the political right, some have expressed reservations that the overall mission does not go far enough in insuring Qaddafi’s downfall from airstrikes by coalition warplanes, rebels advancing on Tripoli or by one of Qaddafi’s cohorts.
Sen. Lindsey Graham told host Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” “We should isolate this regime. We should order all troops back to their garrison. We should knock out his radio and TV ability to communicate with his own people. We shouldn’t pay Qaddafi’s forces any money when it comes to Libyan oil.” Further, the senator suggested that the U.S. should “Isolate, strangle and replace this man — that should be our goal.”
The U.S. is expected to hand over control of the mission to NATO within the next few days. Speaking to reporters during a press conference from Chile, Obama said, “We anticipate this transition to take place in a matter of days and not a matter of weeks.” The administration is attempting to address concerns, voiced by some, that the U.S. military is too far stretched with troop commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. With command and control being handled by NATO this will validate the claim by the administration that the Libyan no-fly zone is an international effort and the U.S. is acting in a support capacity. Qatar is expected to follow through on its commitment to the enforcement of the no-fly zone and several other nations’ fighter jets have arrived in support of the no-fly zone, in particular Denmark and Canada.
Despite domestic political problems associated with the mission, U.S. and coalition forces have been successful in downgrading Libyan military capabilities. Gen. Carter F. Ham told reporters during a news conference from Stuttgart, Germany, “I assess that our actions to date are generally achieving the intended objectives.” Gen. Ham continued, “We have not observed Libyan military aircraft operating since the beginning of coalition operations.”
The coalition air sorties and cruise missile attacks have succeeded in destroying Libyan air defense systems and some ground units that had threatened civilians and rebel groups in Benghazi and elsewhere. Gen. Ham has said, “we are now seeing regime forces moving southward from Benghazi…Through a variety of reports, we know that regime ground forces that were in the vicinity of Benghazi now possess little will or capability to resume offensive operations.”
Mobile surface-to-air missile batteries will continue to put American and coalition fighter jets in danger as a number of these batteries are still in operation. These missile batteries were not targeted in the first 48 hours of the coalition air campaign. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney said “There are quite a few of those out there.” Because these units are not stationary the risk to civilians is greater if coalition forces target these units because they can be positioned closer to civilians.
Due to the success of the air campaign of the past 48 hours, the no-fly zone will now be expanded to encompass Tripoli and surrounding areas including the cities of Brega and to Misrata. This development will put strains on the coalition. Although Libya is a not a massive country, enforcing a no-fly zone is a 24-hour endeavor. Typically, two fighter planes must fly in tandem and must also be supported by air, ground and ship based radar systems to track enemy movements if Qaddafi is in violation of the UN resolution. As President Obama returns from his South American soiree he finds himself in a politically untenable situation. While public support for the no-fly zone runs relatively high, political support on Capitol Hill is harder to gauge. According to recent polling by CNN, 70 percent favor a no-fly zone while 27 percent oppose U.S. involvement.
Congress and the American people are increasingly exhausted by Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya. The president will have to portray U.S. engagement in Libya as necessary. While the president has ruled out the use of American ground troops, U.S. involvement in the region is significant. The U.S. military has repositioned several warships and fighter aircraft have participated in a significant number of the sorties over Libya.
Prominent foreign policy experts on Capitol Hill like Senators Jim Webb (D-VA) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) have expressed their opposition to even a limited U.S. engagement and Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has even suggested that the president’s actions might be considered impeachable. Obama must reach out to Webb and Lugar and convince them of the necessity of U.S. involvement or face blowback in the months ahead. Opposition from Rep. Kucinich and others like Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) is less detrimental because they have generally opposed any and all use of U.S. military power except in rare instances. Although there are prominent opponents of U.S. military involvement, the president does have the support of a significant number of other Senators and Congressmen.
Senators McCain, Liebermann and Graham have expressed support for U.S. engagement. Speaker John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi have also spoken favorably of U.S. actions despite some reservations about the overall mission objectives. Boehner’s office released the following statement shortly after the air campaign began, “The United States has a moral obligation to stand with those who seek freedom from oppression and self-government for their people. It’s unacceptable and outrageous for Qadhafi to attack his own people, and the violence must stop. The President is the commander-in-chief, but the Administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is, better explain what America’s role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished.”
Long-term U.S. engagement will prove difficult unless the president can address various concerns voiced by lawmakers. As the coalition mission proceeds, the international community will have to define its end-goals in Libya.