Beware: Widespread Mission Creep Underway in Libya

However one views the morality of the Libyan “intervention,” the murkiness of its objectives and the rapid speed with which the conflict has escalated should offer deep misgivings about the ostensibly humanitarian venture.

Consider the bait-and-switch. The U.S. role in the intervention was sold to the American people as a very limited one: we'd help enforce a no-fly zone. In his speech on Monday, Obama said that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake." A day later, Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina – a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee -- told CNN, "the goal of this country is to replace Gadhafi." That same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters, "Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead, so we believe he must go. We're working with the international community to try to achieve that outcome.”

Spencer Ackerman also reported this week that Nato's top commander “left the door open” for ground troops to follow:

During a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island asked Adm. James Stavridis about NATO putting forces into “post-Gadhafi” Libya to make sure the country doesn’t fall apart. Stavridis said he “wouldn’t say NATO’s considering it yet.” But because of NATO’s history of putting peacekeepers in the Balkans — as pictured above — “the possibility of a stabilization regime exists.”

“So welcome to a new possible 'endgame' for Libya,” wrote Ackerman. “Western troops patrolling Libya’s cities during a a shaky transition after Moammar Gadhafi’s regime has fallen, however that’s supposed to happen.”

Meanwhile, according to a series of reports this week, the U.S. has opened up a covert war in Libya. On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration has issued a “covert finding” authorizing the CIA to “to carry out a clandestine effort to provide arms and other support to Libyan opposition groups.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, operatives are already on the ground, “feeding intelligence on ground targets to the U.S. military and coalition forces for airstrikes and reaching out to rebels aligned against Col. Moammar Gadhafi.”

Reading between the lines of a McClatchy report this week suggests that the new general commanding the “rebel army,” Khalifa Hifter, is a CIA asset. According to the report, Hifter “spent the past two decades in suburban Virginia but felt compelled — even in his late 60s — to return to the battlefield in his homeland, according to people who know him.” Langley, where the CIA is headquartered, is in “suburban Virginia,” and a close acquaintance interviewed by McClatchy said he was 'unsure exactly what Hifter did to support himself.”

All of this doesn't represent an example of “mission creep” -- it's mission leap.

And while the media continually talks about Libya's “rebel army,” national security analyst and Iraq war vet Rafael Noboa y Rivera argues that, like it or not, we'll be in Libya for an extended period in large part because “the Libyan rebel army doesn’t exist.”

What you’re seeing on CNN/MSNBC/BBC/your evening news is a rabble. A gang. Those guys on pickup trucks? They’re, at best, military tourists. You maybe have about 1,000 people in the Libyan rebel rabble that could compose the nucleus of a fighting force. It’s not just a question of providing them with arms. By now, the Libyan countryside is swimming with weapons. The rebels have access to weapons, and they have access to ammunition.

“The longer the rebels take to defeat Qadhdhafi,” he adds, “the greater the chances are that you’ll see ground forces deployed to Libya, regardless of what President Obama says.”

The bottom line is that we own Libya now, for the long term. We won’t abandon the rebels, regardless of how utterly feckless they are. We also own the Libyan aftermath – and we have no idea of how that looks like. We have a lot of hopes for what it may look like, but as we learned in Iraq, hope is not a plan. And that’s why those of us who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were so bloody reluctant to get involved in Libya – because in some key respects, it bore a highly uncomfortable resemblance to what we experienced.

Meanwhile, there is the important question of interests being pursued beyond the narrow scope of protecting Libyans from being massacred. According to an analysis by the private intelligence agency Stratfor, France is asserting itself as the most potent military power in Europe. The intervention is not only “a message that says if Europe intends to be taken seriously as a global power, it will need French military power,” but also consistent with French president Nicolas Sarkozy's “history of using aggressive foreign relation moves to gain or maintain popularity at home.”

For the UK, Stratfor concludes, “the domestic political component is not as strong as its energy interests.” British energy giant BP signed contracts to drill in Libya – both onshore and off – after a protracted negotiation, but political issues prevented the deal from being consummated. The analysis concludes that, “with no oil production in Libya and arms sales that lag those of France and Italy by a considerable margin, the United Kingdom could substantially benefit from new leadership in Tripoli or even just Benghazi.”

All of this speaks to why one should be wary about this intervention, whether or not one believes it to be justified. There is no guarantee that a rapid and relatively bloodless conflict will lead to Gadhafi's ouster, or what entity will follow. The scope of the West's involvement is unsure. The UN resolution was vague – authorizing not a no-fly zone, but any measures “deemed necessary for the benefit of the Libyan people.” We don't know the extent to which our clandestine services are involved, and the interests of the states leading the charge in Libya haven't been a part of the national debate.

These are the perils of humanitarian intervention in an era in which the international community doesn't have the institutions required to do it right. We can only hope that Libya doesn't devolve into yet another protracted ground war. Unfortunately, history doesn't offer much reason for optimism.


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