Debate Over U.S. Role In Libya Continues

Rep. Ron Paul, (R-Texas)
Steven Metz, U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute

Leaders of coalition member states say that the strikes in Libya are needed to protect Libyan civilians, but some critics say the conflict between the rebels and the Gadhafi government is not America's problem to solve.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

As military operations continue in Libya, some critics say the decision to act came too late. Some complain that the aims are less than clear. And some argue that the United States has involved itself in another costly and unnecessary conflict with no end in sight.

About an hour ago, President Obama addressed the situation during a news conference on the road in Chile. He reiterated the coalition's commitment to the humanitarian cause in Libya, but also laid plain the U.S. position on its - Libya's leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

President BARACK OBAMA: I authorized the United States military to work with our international partners to fulfill that mandate. Now, I also have stated that it is U.S. policy that Gadhafi needs to go.

CONAN: Earlier today, British Prime Minister David Cameron told his parliament that coalition forces had achieved notable successes.

Prime Minister DAVID CAMERON (United Kingdom): I can announce to the House today that coalition forces have largely neutralized Libyan air defenses, and that, as a result, a no-fly zone has effectively been put in place over Libya. It is also clear that coalition forces have helped to avert what could have been a bloody massacre in Benghazi.

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

Prime Minister CAMERON: In my view, they did so just in the nick of time.

CONAN: There are reports that it was a British strike that destroyed a building in Moammar Gadhafi's headquarters compound in Tripoli. Speaking today, the U.S. commander in Stuttgart reemphasized the limited role even if rebel forces in Libya mount a counterattack.

General CARTER HAM (Commander, U.S. Africa Command): We have no mission and no intent to provide close air support to the opposition.

CONAN: General Carter Ham also said that U.S. and coalition forces do not have Colonel Gadhafi on their target list.

Republican Congressman Ron Paul joins us now by phone from his office in Lake Jackson, Texas. He represents Texas's 14th congressional district. And, Congressman, good of you to be with us today.

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): Thank you. Good to be with you.

CONAN: Last week, you introduced a concurrent resolution in the House to remind your colleagues that the administration and Congress, not just the president alone, should decide when the U.S. goes to war.

Rep. PAUL: Yes. It's not very popular and it's pretty old-fashioned, but I still strongly believe in it. I mean, it's the law. It's the Constitution. And I think we slip into wars too easily. Here we've been into Afghanistan for 10 years and are wondering how to get out. And actually, the Congress seems to be nonchalant of allowing the president to go marching into another country and getting involved without any consultation with the Congress. I think it's wrong. I think it's going to lead to trouble. I don't think it's - much good will come of it.

CONAN: The president seemed to go out of his way to make sure that he had authorization from the United Nations Security Council and got that after seeing a resolution approving a no-fly zone from the Arab League. Are those important legitimizing factors?

Rep. PAUL: Well, I think the Arab League is important, and I think he can use that to a degree. Except the next day, they had an emergency meeting and they withdrew the support. And they said they never expected him to do - expected the allies to do what they were doing. So they are very, very unnerved by what's happening there.

The United Nations, no, I don't think the United Nations has the authority that the Congress is supposed to have about when we go to war. Imposing a military no-fly zone is an act of war. And the - there's nothing in our law that says the U.N., you know, supersedes our Constitution.

CONAN: As you know, the United States has not actually declared war since December 8th, 1941.

Rep. PAUL: Right.

CONAN: And it's been many conflicts between then and now. It doesn't make it any - it doesn't change the United States' Constitution, though.

Rep. PAUL: No. I think it points out how lackadaisical we are and how derelict the Congress has been and the people. The people tolerate the Congress, and the Congress tolerates our executive branch, Republican or Democrat, and the wars are pursued. The money is wasted, the death accumulates. And they think nothing of taking on another military obligation in the midst of this financial crisis that we have. So it makes no sense to me.

And I think - and I hope that a lot of Americans will start waking up and saying, you know, enough is enough. How many wars do we have to be involved in?

CONAN: And you've been a critic of U.S. military engagement overseas and said, indeed, we should bring forces home from Afghanistan and from Iraq as well, close a lot of the military bases we have overseas. The United States has now committed to its allies to continue this operation in Libya. What do you think we should do there?

Rep. PAUL: Well, we shouldn't have started. And we should quit. They're hiding it behind, you know, the U.N. resolution. And they're also saying that our partners are leading the charge. But when push comes to shove, it will be American technology, American money. And when the troops are necessary to go in - you know, bombing missions are not known to solve the problems. They eventually need troops on the land, because if Gadhafi is able to put together a defense, I mean, they still have the problems there.

And the American people, the American taxpayer and American soldiers will probably have to bear the burden. And, you know, it was supposed to be a quick war, and the oil was supposed to pay for the Iraq war. And here we are, you know, eight years later, 10 years in Afghanistan. But there is a limit. It doesn't seem like countries wake up to the moral arguments or the legal arguments, but eventually the law of economics wakes everybody up, because countries can't afford it. This is more or less what happened to the Soviet system. We didn't have to fight them.

And I think we're getting precariously close to that point, where just assuming hundreds of billions of dollars of more debt could be taken care of by just, you know, creating money and credit out of thin air and borrowing from foreign nations, there's a limit - no matter how justified it might seem, there's a limit to the finances. And I think in the next year or two, we're all going to realize it.

CONAN: And the alternative, some say, would have been to watch Colonel Gadhafi make good on his promise to go into Benghazi, a city of some 700,000, and go house to house and room to room and closet to closet to drag out those who had acted against him.

Rep. PAUL: Yeah. But that's when their neighborhood should maybe deal with it. That would be the united Arab community. They should do something. But if the reason we're there is for humanitarian reasons, I can give you about 10 or 15 other places in the world where we totally ignore humanitarian needs. We're not complaining about the governments are going to dissenters in Bahrain or in Yemen. They continue.

So there's more to it than us being, you know, the - taking the moral high ground, and we're the only ones who care and we're going to go in there and save these people. I think that's - I think they're trying to fool us into believing that because, quite frankly, we didn't do much about Rwanda when there was a crisis there, and that was genocidal and much more massive.

CONAN: Congressman Paul, thank you very much for your time today.

Rep. PAUL: Thank you.

CONAN: Ron Paul represents the 14th Congressional District in Texas. He joined us by phone from his office in Lake Jackson.

Joining us now from his home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania is Steven Metz, chairman of the Regional Strategy Department at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

And good of you to be with us.

Dr. STEVEN METZ (Chairman, Regional Strategy Department, U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute): It's my pleasure.

CONAN: And we wanted to ask you about what happens - and the - General Carter Ham addressed this to some degree today at a news conference from his headquarters in Stuttgart, talking to reporters of the Pentagon, and asked if the rebels in Libya managed to get together a military force and reconstituted and start marching to the west towards Tripoli, the capital, in an attempt to unseat Colonel Gadhafi, would the coalition air force act with them and provide close air support? And he said, no, it would not.

Dr. METZ: Well, the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 certainly doesn't cover that. It addressed strictly the impending humanitarian crisis. So should that happen, I think the United States and its partners and the United Nations in general would have to reconsider what its approach to that sort of rebel offensive would be.

CONAN: And reconsider in terms of, yes, we would support them and provide the flying artillery that they lack?

Dr. METZ: Well, I don't think anyone's made a decision on that. I mean, I'm sure that there would be people arguing in favor of that. There would be equal arguing against it. And the United States and its partners would have to talk to the rebels, decide what's in their interest at that point.

CONAN: You wrote in the piece of The New Republic: History offers a number of signed posts that an insurgency will occur. Unfortunately, Libya has almost all them. What did you mean by those sign posts?

Dr. METZ: Well, if you look at the situation there, we have two sides with - right now, at least - irreconcilable interests. I mean, one side will only be satisfied if Gadhafi leaves. Gadhafi will only be satisfied if he stays in total power. You have a nation where both sides - as in Iraq - have thousands of men with military training. There's a warrior ethos. There's a lot of arms. There's a lot of hinterlands in Libya. There's porous borders. So if you look at kind of the history of places where protracted insurgencies have occurred, you can kind of go down the list and, unfortunately and sadly, almost all of the conditions are -exist in Libya today.

CONAN: So you are envisioning a long term, sort of low-level conflict between two-halves of Libya, basically?

Dr. METZ: Well, you know, I think like everyone, you know, I sincerely hope that that this isn't what happens. I hope that there's a speedy resolution with Gadhafi leaving and the beginning of the consolidation of democracy in Libya. But I - but looking at it, you know, as a strategist, as a historian, I have to think that there's a strong possibility that whether Gadhafi somehow emerges victorious or whether Gadhafi leaves and leaves behind his loyalists, that whatever side is the loser is very likely to use sort of low-level violence for an extended period of time.

CONAN: We're talking with Steven Metz, chairman of Regional Strategy Department at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

As an historian, you're well familiar with the North African campaign during the Second World War, and we've already seen some parts of this play out. We saw the insurgent forces, the rebels rise in the eastern part of the country and move to the west, seemingly to the gates of Tripoli, before Colonel Gadhafi got his armored - his army together and then drove them all the way back to the gates of Benghazi. Again, are we seeing another retreat at this point, do you think?

Dr. METZ: Well, yeah. It is sort of ironic that you have a replication there of what happened early on in the campaign of - in North Africa. I think, at this point, assuming that the - that Gadhafi doesn't launch another conventional offensive, so long as the international forces is using air power, then we're probably - I would expect to see kind of each side sit pretty much where it is for some period of time as they sort of feel each other out. I think that if Gadhafi does try to take any offensive action against the rebels in the near term, it's going to be more of an irregular type of thing rather than a conventional offensive.

CONAN: We saw the armored column that he had sent all the way to the east of Benghazi, apparently smashed by coalition air power south of Benghazi. Yet there are reports today that his forces are engaged in a much smaller-scale action in Misurata, a city still being held by the rebels, but surrounded by pro-Gadhafi forces. That's going to be difficult for air power to settle out.

Dr. METZ: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, what could be maybe an analogy for this is what the Iraqis did with their regular forces in 2003 as the U.S. advanced. Rather than seeing conventional units and tanks and guys in uniform, you see people in pickup trucks and buses, maybe even out-of-uniform, try to infiltrate areas and operate that way. That would be the logical thing for Gadhafi to do, recognizing that he can't operate conventionally in the open with the international air force above.

CONAN: In the past, Colonel Gadhafi has supported terrorists and conducted terrorism.

Dr. METZ: Absolutely. And, I mean, should he hold power as this ends, I have no doubt that he would at least explore that again. You know, there's - I think that probably the support of international terrorism is not something that can kind of just immediately be turned on.

And I think all of the world hopes that this will be resolved and he'll be gone before he has a chance to sort of reconstitute the extensive terrorist support network that he had a couple of decades ago.

CONAN: We have seen, sort of, declared aims. The leaders of Britain, France, the United States have said: It is our preferred end that Colonel Gadhafi go. Nevertheless, in order to get support from the Arab League, in order to get a resolution from the United Nations Security Council, they came out with a resolution that - whose aims are much more limited than that.

Can we square the circle? Can, somehow, the unstated aims become the real aims?

Dr. METZ: Well, you know, you're exactly right that the United States and the other nations have said that what they desire in the end is for Gadhafi to be gone. But the U.N. resolution certainly doesn't call for that.

The way it kind of made sense to me as I was trying to organize this in my mind is what the U.N. resolution does is like a paramedic when he comes upon an accident. I mean, you don't immediately start thinking about, well, when is this person going to get out of the hospital? What you have to do is to save their life in the short term. That's what the U.N. resolution did. I mean, it prevented the - Gadhafi's forces from totally obliterating the rebels. And I think that the idea of the world community is that, in the short term, we'll do that and we'll kind of set back, and hopefully the Arab League will take - will lead some sort of long-term strategy that'll lead to a peaceful resolution.

CONAN: And there are any number of factors that could play into this. So far, Colonel Gadhafi has freedom of action in his part of Libya, and he does have resources at his command, not just the conventional forces. They may be very limited in terms of their applicability here, but he also has unconventional forces - as you mentioned, not just people in or out of uniform who are walking rather than riding, but he has, from what we hear, unconventional weapons, too.

Dr. METZ: Oh, absolutely. And should he use them, I mean, this could be very easily turn into a very long, protracted low-level conflict, perhaps even a stalemate. Short of an international intervention to remove him - which is extremely, extremely unlikely - this could drag on for months or even years.

CONAN: And then, we remember recent history and the 12-year no-fly zone that was enforced over southern and northern Iraq, which only ended, well, eight years ago with the U.S.-led invasion.

Dr. METZ: Yeah. That's absolutely true. As I've discussed that with people and people kind of point to Iraq as evidence that no-fly zones don't work, you know, I always remind them, I say one thing to keep in mind is particularly the no-fly zone in northern Iraq. In a lot of ways, it really was successful. I mean, it saved a lot of people's lives. It allowed the Kurds there to consolidate.

So while it was expensive, it's certainly not something that the U.S. would want to be involved in a major way for that extended period time. It wasn't an abject failure, at least in the north.

CONAN: Steven Metz, thank you very much for your time.

Dr. METZ: Sure.

CONAN: Steven Metz of the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. His article, "Libya's Coming Insurgency," ran in the New Republic yesterday. There's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

More on this story later today from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. You've been listening to an NPR News special.

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