On August 1, the Obama administration announced a series of airstrikes against Islamic State positions in the Libyan city of Sirte, in coordination with a ground assault by Libya’s internationally recognized, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). The new mission marks a significant escalation: while the United States has carried out targeted air strikes against ISIS leaders and training camps in Libya over the past year, it has now picked a side in the country’s civil war—the GNA.
The GNA’s attempt to dislodge ISIS from Sirte will present the UN-supported unity government with a critical test. The stakes are equally high for ISIS: If it secures a strong foothold in Libya, militants could use it as a springboard for further attacks in Europe, compensating for its territorial losses in Syria and Iraq. Libya’s wider stability is also a pressing issue, because hundreds of thousands of refugees have traveled from Libya to Europe, with thousands drowning along the way.
Libya has a particular resonance for Obama. After NATO acted as the air arm of the Libyan rebels in 2011 as part of an international campaign to topple Muammar Qaddafi, the coalition and Washington took their eye off Libya. Subsequently, the country collapsed into anarchy as rival militias dueled for power, turning the country into a “shit show,” as Obama put it privately. The original sin in Libya, Obama now admits, was short-term thinking. In April, he said his administration’s worst mistake was its failure to plan for “the day after” the Libya intervention. Last week in a press conference, he reiterated “that all of us … were not sufficiently attentive to what had to happen the day after, and the day after, and the day after that in order to ensure that there were strong structures in place to assure basic security and peace inside of Libya.”
Based on the conduct of the Libya operation so far, however, the sin of short-termism is still very much evident. Indeed, the Obama Doctrine has encouraged an improvisational view of war based on putting out fires rather than pursuing a coherent long-term strategy. As a result, there’s no guarantee that the new mission will produce more enduring results than the previous campaign in 2011.
At its heart, the Obama Doctrine seeks to use force to protect U.S. interests and values—for example, containing and degrading ISIS—without undermining the president’s grander objective of extrication from wars in the Middle East, or risking a repeat of the Iraq War. The current air campaign in Libya exhibits all the hallmarks of Obama’s way of war: the careful and calibrated use of force, the reliance on air power rather than ground troops, the coordination with local allies—in this case, the GNA, which requested the anti-ISIS strikes.
In many respects, the Obama Doctrine offers an attractive strategic approach, first and foremost by minimizing the risks of a major U.S. ground war. The model of providing U.S. air support to local allies has helped repel ISIS in the Middle East, where, by some estimates, the group has lost around one-quarter of its territory since early 2015. And there have been several positive steps in Libya, with the formation of a recognized government, and recent victories over ISIS.
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But the Obama Doctrine also encourages a short-term, stop-gap view of war, one that focuses on tactical operations rather than on a clear endgame. It’s something of an open secret among top U.S. defense officials. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it in 2015, in the Middle East “[w]e’re basically sort of playing this day to day.” In June, during his Senate confirmation hearing to become head of U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser was asked about the administration’s overarching strategy in Libya. His pointed reply: “I am not aware of any overall grand strategy at this point.”
It’s a confounding problem. The White House doesn’t want to think too far ahead in Libya, because a credible plan to stabilize the country could draw the United States into a greater commitment than Obama wants, while raising the dreaded specter of nation-building. All this is reinforced by the fact that Obama is entering his last six months in office, and therefore thinking about his own endgame. By avoiding grand schemes and focusing instead on the here and now, Obama can keep his options open, and hand the Libya conundrum off to his successor.
There’s a basic tension, however, between Obama’s short-term mindset and a long-running war, which threatens to undermine the chances of durable success. The bombing campaign in Libya is a 30-day operation—“a finite period of time and a very finite mission,” a Pentagon spokesman said on August 2, adding that the United States doesn’t “envision this as being something that’s going to be too long.” The Pentagon also described the recent Libya intervention in narrowly kinetic terms: The United States targeted ISIS construction vehicles, a rocket launcher, and a pair of Soviet-era T-72 tanks, which “had really proved to be a menacing problem for the GNA.”
But pushing ISIS out of Libya will require a broader, more political approach. During his recent press conference with the prime minister of Singapore, Obama described the GNA regime as the “beginnings of a government” of national accord, one that is “serious about trying to bring all the factions together.” Here, it’s worth emphasizing the idea of beginnings. There are hundreds of rival militias vying for control in Libya; many reject the GNA’s authority. The House of Representatives, an alternative government based in eastern Libya, has signaled support for the GNA, but has yet to offer a formal vote of confidence. A Libya free of ISIS is by no means a Libya free of factional discord. And U.S. airstrikes seem unlikely to change that.
Airstrikes, in addition, do not answer the question of what happens to ISIS after it is pushed out of Sirte. Nor do they address the issue of who will govern and bring order to the territory it held. Moreover: If ISIS loses territorial control, what prevents it from adopting insurgent or terrorist tactics, much as it already has done?
At his press conference last week, Obama said he is “hopeful that having completed this process of driving [ISIS] out, [the GNA] will then be in a position to start bringing the parties together inside that country.” In other words, Washington should fight first, and worry about politics later. But politics must be woven into the campaign from the start.
And then there’s the puzzle of the GNA’s strength. Obama claimed that the GNA “had already made significant progress” against ISIS, pinning it “into a very confined area in and around Sirte.” But if ISIS is on its last legs, why did the GNA have to request U.S. aid, potentially tarnishing its victory by calling in the Americans? After all, there’s an inherent risk that Western intervention will delegitimize the GNA. Fayez Serraj, the GNA prime minister, stressed that foreign military support would be strictly limited. The likely answer here is that ISIS put up an unexpectedly stubborn defense in Sirte, and caused significant GNA casualties—a dangerous sign, as the GNA tries to consolidate its control across the country.
Politics also matters within the international coalition. France, Britain, Germany, Spain, and Italy have all backed the GNA as the recognized government in Libya. But Western governments seem to be hedging their bets. In July, three French special operations troops died in a helicopter accident near Benghazi, after working on an intelligence mission alongside House of Representatives forces. The international community must send a consistent message about which Libyan groups are considered legitimate.
And the politics are highly significant for broader U.S. foreign policy. Washington is now effectively committed not just to battling ISIS but also to helping the GNA’s war effort. Having placed the U.S. reputation on the line, Obama and future presidents may feel obliged to assist the GNA militarily if it faces challenges from other Libyan factions.
Overall, the Libyan intervention reveals a fundamental dilemma, one that cuts to the heart of the Obama Doctrine. How can the administration successfully navigate its final months and avoid another major Middle East commitment without improvising or playing an international version of whack-a-mole? Short-term thinking in wartime can sow the seeds of failure, and ensure that the United States is forced to return later on. According to Obama, the United States must help the GNA “finish the job” of capturing Sirte. But if a decade of war in the Middle East has taught the United States anything, it’s that capturing territory alone doesn’t finish the job. It’s only the beginning.