Obama's Light Footprint Strategy

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Debating Obama's approach to the war in Libya

Would Jackson Diehl have preferred to land 130,000 U.S. troops inside Libya? That seems to be the upshot of his column today:

But ultimately the disaster in Libya derived from Obama’s doctrine. Having been reluctantly dragged by France and Britain into intervening in Libya’s revolution, Obama withdrew U.S. planes from the fight as quickly as possible; when the war ended, the White House insisted that no U.S. forces stay behind. Requests by Libya’s fragile transition government for NATO’s security assistance were answered with an ill-conceived and ultimately failed program to train a few people in Jordan.

A new report by the Rand Corporation concludes that “this lighter-footprint approach has made Libya a test case for a new post-Iraq and Afghanistan model of nation-building.” But the result is that, a year after the death of dictator Moammar Gaddafi, Libya is policed by what amounts to a mess of militias. Its newly elected government has little authority over most of the country’s armed men — much less the capacity to take on the jidhadist forces gathering in and around Benghazi.

The Rand study concludes that stabilizing Libya will require disarming and demobilizing the militias and rebuilding the security forces “from the bottom up.” This, it says, probably can’t happen without help from “those countries that participated in the military intervention” — i.e. the United States, Britain and France. Can the Obama administration duplicate the security-force-building done in Iraq and Afghanistan in Libya while sticking to the light footprint? It’s hard to see how.

It's worth noting that both Iraq and Afghanistan are far from stable success stories. If Diehl is moved to call Obama's Libya campaign a "disaster" because four Americans were killed by terrorists, he needs to examine how many Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of U.S. policies there.

Even if the U.S. and Western allies were to dump 130,000 personnel into Libya for security-force training and stability operations, there's no guarantee of success. Instead, what would almost certainly happen instead is that a large number of foreign forces offering to "assist" Libya would provoke an indigenous insurgency - just as it did in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Is this what Diehl wants?

The only sensible conclusion to be drawn from this is that the U.S. should have stayed out of Libya in the first place and should keep its current failures in mind when debating forward-looking policy in Syria. It's true that the "light footprint" approach employed by the administration cannot bring stability to these countries, but the "large footprint" approach is too expensive and dangerous. The sensible conclusion to be drawn from this, then, is that the U.S. needs a "no footprint" approach unless absolutely vital interests are implicated.

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