Two months into the Libyan rebellion, it is clear that getting rid of Col. Moammar Gadhafi is harder than it looked when President Barack Obama spoke of an American involvement of “days, not weeks.” The question now is how to keep the NATO-led intervention from settling into a humiliating and unacceptable stalemate, like we are facing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So far, the NATO allies have relied on air power, which in other engagements rarely has been sufficient for victory. Its bombs and rockets were not enough in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany and Japan. Boots on the ground almost always have been essential. Yet President Obama has promised not to send in American ground troops. He has scaled up the use of air power by introducing unmanned Predator drones.
Two famous remarks by Colin Powell help explain the dilemma over what to do next. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he advanced the “Powell Doctrine,” which prescribed the employment of overwhelming force to minimize American casualties and assure victory. As secretary of state, he reportedly advised President George W. Bush on the eve of the invasion of Iraq to remember that “you break it, you own it.”
No American seems to want to own Libya.
Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, edging toward advocating additional U.S. force, said last week, “The problem is the gap between U.S. objectives and what we are willing to do to accomplish them.” As quoted by David E. Sanger in The New York Times, he went on: “We either have to do a lot more — and the Predators were a step in that direction — or go for a cease-fire and live with the fact that Gadhafi could be in place for some time.”
Britain, France and Italy are closer than the United States to Libya, politically and economically as well as geographically. And they have taken a step toward ground forces by sending in a few military advisers.
If they go further, they will be trying to help a ragtag body of undisciplined, ununiformed rebels who are short of weapons, ammunition and even clothing. They can’t really be called an army.
But the American colonies in the 1700s were similarly bad off, as described in fresh detail in Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “George Washington: A Life.” The American rebels were a collection of mismatched state militias, plagued by desertion, disease and such a shortage of weapons that many were issued spears instead of guns. It took military and naval help from France and the leadership of George Washington to win independence.
Like the Americans, the Libyan rebels have a patriotic determination. With outside help, they may prevail. Britain, France and Italy may supply the necessary aid. But the Libyan rebellion still needs the unifying force of a George Washington.