The U.S. has begun using Predator drones in Libya</a?. One the one hand, this is only a minor tactical change from bombs and cruise missiles. On the other hand, it is at odds with the President’s March 28 speech in which he said the U.S. was turning over the operation to NATO, and the U.S. would only “play a supporting role — including intelligence, logistical support, search and rescue assistance, and capabilities to jam regime communications.”
This mission began with assurance of minimal involvement for the U.S., but was characterized from the beginning by conflicting messages from the Obama administration about what our goals were; whether just humanitarian, or just to aid the rebels a little, or absolute regime change. And weeks into it, it appears the administration is still not sure what its goals are. Sure, it would like regime change, but does it have a commitment to that goal, and if so, how far into Libya is it willing to be drawn? Is it going to try for regime change on the cheap, and if that doesn’t work, what then? Is it going to pretend all along that was never the real purpose?
But these Predator attacks come as the situation on the ground has stalemated–in part because Obama withdrew ground attack aircraft, in his on-going effort to be involved without being involved–as Britain, France and Italy take the step of putting military advisers on the ground, and as the U.S.’s NATO allies are putting more pressure on the U.S. to take a more active role in the Libyan mission. Meanwhile Vice-President Biden is complaining that NATO lacks will, not capacity. But that is complaining about the rules, not the officiating. That is, everyone knew going in that NATO-minus-the-U.S. lacks will:* we knew those were the ground rules, yet we decided to join the game anyway.
I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that either Obama or Biden has any idea of what their real goals, purposes, and strategies for Libya are. They felt pressured into a game they didn’t really want to enter, and now they face conflicting pressures, from the one side to play a minimal supporting role (surely the administration’s real preference) and from the other side to take the leading role that we usually do (without which the whole adventure may fail).
While I’m sympathetic to the goal of wanting to help Libyans overthrow their authoritarian regime, I think Obama was mistaken to get us involved, especially as he did not have a clear vision of the goals and the level of commitment that would be necessary to achieve it.
*There is justification for the NATO state’s lack of will. They have much closer experience with the cost of war than the U.S., and so their populations and leaders–both political and military–are far less gung-ho than those of the U.S. Will is an important strategic element here, but it’s not an element that is always and everywhere admirable.