Former U.S. military officers are warning against any direct military action in Libya and other unsettled Arab nations, as the Pentagon works furiously on a list of options to give the president.
One insider said the Pentagon was “asleep” until about a week ago, when the White House took political heat for dispatching a ferry to pick up stranded Americans in Libya while Britain sent a warship for its citizens.
“At least the halls are no longer sleepy in the Pentagon,” this official said.
The Pentagon is working on a way to set up a “no-fly” zone to keep Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from bombing his own people. There is also talk of a humanitarian airlift that would not put any, or a limited number of, U.S. troops on the ground. Also under discussion is whether to advise the rebels controlling eastern Libya.
Retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, who ran the 1991 Operation Desert Storm air war, said he would advise the president against everything except some type of humanitarian relief. The U.S. does not know the rebels or their ultimate objectives, he said.
“I don’t think you want to get involved in a civil war in Libya,” Gen. Horner said. “The no-fly zone, all you’re doing is taking away the Libyan air force’s ability to attack insurgents from the air. When you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t stick your nose in it. I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.”
He said the military could have sent cargo jets from Europe instead of a ferry to evacuate Americans.
“The danger is the administration has been accused of screwing everything up with wishy-washy, and probably what they’re doing is desperately flailing trying to appear to be decisive,” said the retired four-star general.
James Carafano, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation and a retired Army officer, said the administration should remember the lessons of Somalia, where a humanitarian mission in 1993 ballooned into a futile military battle to subdue tribal rebels and resulted in an embarrassing U.S. withdrawal.
The fear is, he said, “this administration will do something not because it necessarily makes sense in a credible, feasible, suitable standpoint, but because the pressure is so intense that they do something for the sake of doing something, which is a huge mistake.”
“I’m not yet convinced that a no-fly zone makes sense,” Mr. Carafano said. “They look at this no-fly zone as some sort of easy button, but are you encouraging people who are going to be as bad as Gadhafi to rise up?
“This, to me, is looking more and more like Somalia. You get people who are very conservative saying, ‘Well, we should jump in there because, if we don’t, it will make America look weak-kneed.’
“But the problem with these guys [in the Obama administration] is they’ll respond to that and jump in and then they’ll get a black eye like Lebanon or Somalia and then they’ll pull out. And then that’s even a bigger damage to U.S. prestige,” he said.
The emerging Libyan civil war is taxing the U.S. war in Afghanistan and its presence in the Persian Gulf, where the U.S.-friendly governments of Yemen and Bahrain face protesters.
The Pentagon has positioned the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsage off the Libyan coast and augmented the ship with 400 Marines from the U.S. because most of its Marine Expeditionary Units remain in Afghanistan.
A no-fly zone would require pulling at least one aircraft carrier and its 80 warplanes from the Gulf region, as well as making use of planes in Italy.
“It would take some time and many airplanes,” said retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, an adviser to commanders in Afghanistan.
Gen. Keane said another option would be to strike Col. Gadhafi’s air force as it sits on airstrips and in hangars. “The use of ground forces is highly unlikely, except to participate in an evacuation or a hostage rescue,” he said.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates signaled this week that he is not eager to launch a complex air operation over Libya. He also disclosed that NATO had not agreed on any military action.
“Our job is to give the president the broadest possible decision space and options,” he said. “If we move additional assets, what are the consequences of that for Afghanistan, for the Persian Gulf? And what other allies are prepared to work with us in some of these things?
“So I think those are some of the effects that we have to think about,” Mr. Gates said. “We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East.”
Peter Mansoor, a former executive officer in Iraq to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and a history teacher at Ohio State University, said options could include inserting special-operations teams to aid the rebels, as was done in the invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban.
“The Obama administration should make it clear that it will only consider intervention if publicly invited by leaders of the opposition movement,” Mr. Mansoor said. “Otherwise, the United States will once again be accused of fomenting regime change for nefarious purposes, such as seizing Libyan oil.
“In addition, the United States should only intervene as part of a multinational force with an international mandate, to prevent the diplomatic fiasco that occurred in the wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003,” he said. “If the Libyan opposition wants American support, they need to kiss us in public.”
The Pentagon’s Africa Command, a new unit set up to run military operations on the continent, including Libya, has been publicly silent during its first crisis. Army Gen. William Ward, its chief, has made no statements.
“At this time, we are supporting the Department of Defense’s efforts to conduct planning for a variety of options,” said spokesman Kenneth Fidler. “Gen. Ward has not made any statements. Beyond that, I don’t have any further details to provide.”
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