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In an exclusive interview on The Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour with host Earl Ofari Hutchinson on KTYM 1460 AM Los Angeles on March 25, 2011, Stephen Biddle, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy.
Transcription by Annette Lockett, McAl Typing Service * 323-293-3244 * FAX 323-293-0404 * E-Mail firstname.lastname@example.org
EOH: What are the military consequences, the risks and rewards, for our involvement in Libya?
SB: The immediate reward is averting as humanitarian disaster in which Gaddafi’s forces imposed 10’s of thousands of casualties on non-combatant Libyans. The second order of benefits have to do with our alliance relationships with European allies, especially Britain and France, who are contributing significant numbers of troops to our campaign in Afghanistan. They were more enthusiastic about getting involved militarily in Libya than the Obama administration. It’s hard to say to close allies “It’s important for you to help us out when we think it’s important, but when you want us to help, no way.” Between the need to be responsive to allies and the humanitarian stakes, I think the administration felt they had to get involved. The down side is that airpower can be committed at relatively low cost to us, but has very little ability to bring this conflict to an actual conclusion. It can limit the amount of suffering among civilians for a time, until Gaddafi moves his forces into a residential area where it would be hard to affect from the air. Airpower has no ability to force a political solution to this conflict, and we run the risk of getting involved in something that has no apparent ending.
EOH: Are we there because we support a democratic movement, because Gaddafi is everybody’s enemy, or oil?
SB: I think it’s a mix. I don’t think oil is a significant factor in this decision since Libya is not a large enough oil producer that removal of their production from the world market would cause an economic catastrophe. I think the primary issues are the humanitarian and the alliance relationships with our friends. One problem of acting as part of a multilateral coalition is that we end up having to deal with a variety of colleagues whose interests are not the same as ours. For example, we think it’s very important that Gaddafi be removed and replaced. The coalition consists of a variety of actors, not all of whom are focused on the removal of Gaddafi. The UN resolution says nothing about the replacement of Gaddafi or the development of democracy. It is narrowly framed around the prevention of civilian casualties, which makes it very awkward for the administration who believes, politically, it is important that Gaddafi go, but we are not authorized by the UN to use military power to get rid of Gaddafi.
EOH: Your thoughts on the President’s Libyan policy.
SB: I think the President is trying not to create an enormous ground swell of public support for military force in Libya. He does not want to be constrained by the broad based public insistence for doing something that could drive him into escalation if the current campaign doesn’t produce the fall of Gaddafi. The President wants to act in a limited way, and my sense is the administration wants our involvement to be as small as possible. I think they have been dragged into this to an important degree by the British and the French. The president has not made the broad public appeal to the American people, and it leaves the public square open for his opponents, whether they are republicans or democrats. My guess is the administration feels the use of force they have in mind is small enough that they will be able to weather opposition on Capital Hill. If this turns into an open ended commitment, there will be increasing demands for escalation as a way of getting out from under this. That, I think, will make the administrations strategy of doing this quietly hard to sustain.
If I had to bet on the outcome, it would be a long grinding stalemate. The military geography of Libya makes that more likely than average. The shear distance between urban areas poses serious constraints on the ability to generate the logistical capacity needed to project power. Cities are separated by huge stretches of open desert that creates a serious prospect that neither the Libyan government nor the rebels are actually able to take and hold any ground. The likely outcome is that Gaddafi burrows in and the rebels burrow in and neither side is able to make much headway. But I don’t think that can go on forever.
EOH: What was your observation of Afghanistan?
SB: The security prognosis in South and East Afghanistan are substantially more secure than a year ago. Some areas which were effective “no go” zones in 2008 are now substantially under control. They are not Los Angeles, but large numbers of the Taliban have been removed. In the spring and summer I think we are going to see a lot of fighting as the Taliban try to return to the places from which they have been removed. I think there is a wide spread misconception on the U.S. that the Afghans want us out. In fact, the great majority of Afghans want the foreign military presence, especially the that of American. We are among the most popular of the multi-national coalition. In every poll I’ve seen, strong majorities of Afghans have expressed support for the international coalition presence. Though support has gotten smaller, it is still well north of 60%.