By Jeb Sharp
Robert Pape of the University of Chicago has been thinking and writing about Libya for weeks now. He's the author of a book called "Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War." He takes President Obama at his word that Operation Odyssey Dawn is a humanitarian intervention.
"President Obama has said quite clearly that the purpose here is to save lives," said Pape. "The UN resolution says explicitly all means necessary to save lives in Libya."
Pape thinks that's just as it should be. Draw a line in front of Benghazi and eastern Libya, protect civilians there from Gaddafi's attacks, protect ports and shipping lanes as well, and pump in economic aid to shore up the opposition.
He cites as a model the Kurdish safe haven created in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war. That policy protected the Kurds from Saddam Hussein and allowed them to flourish economically and politically. And also Kosovo where NATO bombing in 1999 forced Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw but stopped short of ousting him. His own people did that peacefully a year later.
"The key thing is not to fall into the trap of thinking that now that we have protected and saved Benghazi, we should just escalate the military effort toward a foreign-imposed regime change by trying to kill Gaddafi," said Pape. "This would be a terrible mistake, because it would help congeal support inside Libya around Gaddafi and it would almost surely break the international coalition."
Determining their own fate
Pape says it's essential that the Libyan opposition determines its own fate. But its fate is now intertwined with the military intervention and the goal of that intervention is ambiguous. Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"You know, we've said we want to remove Gaddafi – and that is the national stated aim of at least three major powers involved in this operation," said Knights. "But we're there enforcing a UN mandate that says something very different from that. So it's fertile ground for confusion."
Especially since the UN Security Council Resolution authorizing the operation has no expiration date.
"I'm surprised they didn't use the obvious solution to this which would have been a UN resolution that expired within a certain period of time or needed to be renewed or reviewed," said Knights. "Instead they've gone with an open-ended UN commitment."
Open-ended and open to interpretation. Where do you draw the line between protecting civilians and ousting the regime that's trying to slaughter them? As both Pape and Knights point out; you can use air power to protect civilians in a place like eastern Libya where regime forces have to cross open desert to attack. But it's not much use in urban areas in the West where pro and anti Gaddafi forces and civilians are all mixed up.
That leaves some, like Richard Andres, a professor at the United States National War College and a former special advisor to the Secretary of the Air Force, to worry the war will be longer and messier than advertised.
"The last few wars that we've been in we thought would end quickly and you know here we are ten years later," said Andres. "So biting off another war at this point, you know it's very frightening to the military community. And I don't know of too many military leaders who think this is a good idea from the Secretary of Defense on down."
When Andres hears President Obama say Gaddafi has to go, he assumes that means the United States will be involved in Libya until Gaddafi actually does go.
"I can't in my own mind understand how we could do a humanitarian operation that left Gaddafi in power," said Andres. "If we stop supporting the rebels, I assume that Gaddafi is going to go in and retake control which will probably lead to a bloodbath. So you get into an operation like this and I'm not sure there's any way to get out of it without turning the regime over."
Andres says Robert Pape's notion of a safe haven in eastern Libya is one possible scenario. But there are many others. As the military well knows, a battle that begins with air strikes often ends in nation-building. For now though, the UN resolution forbids an occupation force and President Obama has ruled out US ground troops. And he continues to promise that Washington will hand off control of the operation soon.
Sign up for our daily newsletter
Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.