Put another check in the win column… but do it quietly. After all, the Great Libyan War of 2011 was fought (and won) without really asking anybody if it was a good idea. No briefs to the UN. No requests to Congress. No petitions to the American people. No Code Pink protests (curious, but whatever).
The NATO No-fly Zone over Libya has in no small part assisted rebels as they fought to overthrow the government of Muammar Gaddafi, and as the news of the long-time dictator’s death at the hands of the opposition trickled out today it appeared as if Odyssey Dawn (the military label for the operation) had met its mission objectives.
As impressive as obtaining the definitive outcome of Gaddafi’s demise is the deft way that Obama orchestrated it. First, in the face of two existing wars that have all but lost whatever public support they once had he started a third war. And knowing that the American public had no stomach for yet another slog Obama chose the antiseptic “no fly zone” option while socializing that the mission was solely about protecting civilians who were under siege by Gaddafi’s forces.
It was brilliant messaging as well as a smart military play. Only the most heartless would oppose using airplanes in a policing role for humanitarian reasons. And in buying that premise, the American public missed the small detail that from the outset many of the missions were about dropping bombs and shooting bullets. In fact, according to the Pentagon, about a third of the Odyssey Dawn sorties flown to date have been “strike” flights — missions where some form of ordnance was dropped in anger.
The use of air assets was also a good defense against critics who claim the military is already stretched too thin. The Marine Corps and Army may be overburdened in Iraq and Afghanistan, but those are ground wars, not air wars. The Iraqis haven’t had a sophisticated air defense system since we savaged theirs during Desert Storm in 1991, and the Taliban don’t have any airplanes at all, never mind MiGs. At a military tactician’s glance Odyssey Dawn actually gave the American Navy and Air Force something more meaningful (than dodging drones over Afghanistan) to do for a few months.
The last presidential parry against whatever tepid criticism the other side of the aisle managed after a few weeks of raining molten death on Libyan loyalists was to give the leadership role to NATO — an optics parlor trick of sorts that saw U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear hand the reins to U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis. And while the U.S. did withdraw many of the most high-tech and effective weapons from the fight after handing the campaign to NATO, it continued to provide everything from tankers to spy planes and UAVs on missions against Gaddafi’s forces.
It should also be noted that close air support doesn’t happen without good forward air controllers, and it’s doubtful that the rebels assumed that role. So who did? The FACs may not have been members of an American military organization — thereby not violating the “no boots on the ground” edict — but it’s not a huge leap in logic to believe they worked for another American agency. Another bit of nuance that kept the de facto war chugging along without drawing the wrong kind of attention.
So in eight months after flying 26,000 sorties and spending $1.1 billion — a drop in the bucket by Iraq and Afghanistan War cost standards — Libya gets a chance at charting a better course and America gets a clear military victory. There wasn’t a lot of crowing along the way — in fact at one point Obama copped to “leading from behind” (and can you imagine W saying that?) — but the outcome is definitive.
Add Odyssey Dawn to Obama’s military wins along with the end of the Iraq War and the bin Laden raid. He didn’t ask for permission in any of those cases, and he didn’t shrink in the face of the risk along the way. In the end he just got it done.
Where I come from we call that “leadership.”