(By Deutsche Welle) Burdened with Iraq and Afghanistan, US President Obama clearly limited the Libyan operation. But as the ground war drags on, Washington may come under growing pressure for a military escalation to break the stalemate.
From the outset of the intervention in Libya, US President Barack Obama called for a limited American military involvement aimed at protecting civilians. NATO allies, particularly Britain and France, would take the leadership role.
However, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi remains in power and the civil war rages on, despite more than a month of allied airstrikes targeting his forces. Pressure has mounted for a military escalation as diplomats have shuffled between London, Doha, Paris and Berlin in search of a Libyan endgame.
As Britain and France argue with NATO over the intensity of the airstrikes, the Obama administration has largely taken a back seat and deferred to its divided European partners. After a decade of war, Washington has lost its enthusiasm for intervening militarily in the Muslim world.
But with the rebels and Gadhafi loyalists currently in a stalemate on the ground, Washington may come under growing pressure to launch a military escalation designed to bring the conflict to a decisive close.
In 2008, as Barack Obama was running for president, he profiled himself as an anti-war candidate, speaking out strongly against the decision to invade Iraq, which he argued distracted America from the critical intervention in Afghanistan, justified on the basis of self-defense and existential national interests.
According to Josef Braml, an expert on American politics, Obama’s position emerged from a compromise with his political base. People close to the major unions as well as the black and Hispanic minority communities were willing to tolerate the operation in Afghanistan so long as the political agenda remained focused on rebuilding America.
“They trusted him to cope with the biggest financial and economic crisis since the 1930s,” Braml – with the German Council on Foreign Relations – told Deutsche Welle. “If he wants to get reelected, he has to make sure he commits resources to the domestic front and has to shift the burden of global responsibility onto the allies.”
Michael Cox, a US foreign policy expert, says America’s inconclusive land wars in the Mideast and Central Asia have made Obama very cautious about being drawn deeper into a third conflict in the Muslim world.
Cox compares this political phenomenon to the so-called Vietnam Syndrome which haunted the White House and Congress during the 1990s. America’s traumatic war in Vietnam during the 1960s made it difficult for Washington to justify interventions in the Balkans and Somalia, nearly 30 years later.
“Now you have an Iraq syndrome effecting how the Obama Administration makes decisions,” Cox – who works with the London-based Chatham House – told Deutsche Welle.
However, Stephen Biddle – an expert on US national security – says that the Obama administration had little room for maneuver internationally once it became clear the Arab League supported intervention in Libya while China and Russia would not veto a UN resolution.
“It created a situation in which the US actually risked being isolated in holding out against humanitarian action,” said Biddle, who works with the Council on Foreign Relations and the US Army War College. “I think at that point they felt that they were painted into a corner.”
As the international pressure for intervention increased, the Obama Administration departed from its initial skepticism and decided to act. Ruling out the use of ground troops from the get-go, Obama argued that the use of limited military force in a multilateral context was justified to protect human rights.
“He made a basic calculation,” Cox said. “If America had not acted and Benghazi had fallen and Gadhafi had gotten back in total control, how would that make the West look?”
According to Alexander Höse, an expert on American foreign policy at the University of Cologne, the belief that a humanitarian catastrophe loomed over Benghazi touched a historic nerve in Washington that mobilized the Obama Administration to take action.
“It has always been the case in American foreign policy that next to the impulse for cold and calculated real politics, there is also this idealistic impulse to defend human rights or certain values,” Höse told Deutsche Welle.
“That doesn’t always work and it’s often contradictory, but it is still the case that when this type of humanitarian emergency occurs, America often feels obligated to intervene militarily.”
The 90s revisited
Although the Obama Administration found itself unable to ignore the growing humanitarian crisis in Libya, Biddle says that Washington remains unwilling to spend too much political capital on a crisis that – though important – is ultimately peripheral to broader national security goals.
“People want to find some kind of limited action which fits the limited stakes,” Biddle said. “Doing nothing seems too little and launching an invasion seems too much. Everybody wants to find some kind of goldilocks solution in between that’s not too hot and not too cold. This was very much the case in the 1990s as well.”
However, limiting means can make it difficult to achieve ends. NATO intervened in the breakaway Balkan province of Kosovo in 1999 to stop alleged human rights abuses by Serbia. After weeks of airstrikes failed to intimidate Belgrade, only the threat of an allied ground invasion forced Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to give into Western demands.
NATO now faces a similar situation in Libya. Up to this point, airstrikes have proven unable to force Gadhafi from his stronghold in Tripoli. France and Britain have called for the military engagement to intensify, but the rest of the alliance – including war-weary America – remains skeptical.
However, as the conflict drags on without a decisive conclusion, escalatory pressure could begin building in Washington as well. Obama will then have to decide just how important Libya is for a nation still shell-shocked from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There’s going to be disagreement between these capitals on how to conduct this thing,” Biddle said. “Those disagreements are going to get more heated as this thing stalemates and escalatory pressure rises.”
“As that happens, it would not be shocking if governments that say right now they’re willing to accept the inefficiencies of multilateralism in order to get allies to bear the costs might change their mind when they see how that inefficiency gets in the way of bringing a successful end to this conflict.”