U.S. Military Has Questions About Libya Mission

Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, talks to Steve Inskeep about what members of the military think about the intervention in Liyba. Ricks also writes a blog for ForeignPolicy.com called The Best Defense.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We do have some news from Libya this morning, where an American warplane went down overnight. We're told that both crewmembers ejected after suffering mechanical problems and they were rescued when they landed in rebel-held territory.

This incident is a reminder that the choice to go to war puts the military in harm's way. And to get a sense of what some U.S. military officers are thinking, we've called Tom Ricks. He is a prize-winning military journalist, as well as a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Ricks, welcome back to the program.

Mr. TOM RICKS (Center for New American Security): Thank you.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from your military friends?

Mr. RICKS: A lot of concern, a lot of worry, a lot of questions about what's the mission here, how long does it last, and what's the exit strategy.

INSKEEP: And let's be clear here: The military is going to follow whatever orders they're giving. But these are people who think, and think about strategy, and think about putting their own troops in harm's way. And you're saying they're worried about what they're doing.

Mr. RICKS: Absolutely. The military will follow the orders it's given. But the military also interprets those orders. I mean, it's a side issue, but I think the military in Iraq, for example, shirked the commission by redefining it without talking to anybody, saying we don't do revolution. We don't change the country. We just do stability.

So if the military's unhappy with the mission, it can start fiddling with it without any discussion with outside the military. And that can be worrisome, because it can start going off in different directions.

INSKEEP: Okay, in exactly what way are the people you're talking to unhappy, then?

Mr. RICKS: They're not sure what we're doing, why we're doing it, how long we do it. These are a lot of basic questions. But at the same time, I push back on them a little bit in my discussions with them, because I think the Bush administration tended to offer false clarity. Hey, we're going to go into Iraq. We're going to get all that weapons of mass destruction, and we'll be out by September of 2003.

What you're seeing now, I think, with Obama is more of a realistic ambiguity. And I think the military's been talking for the last 10 years about how we need to learn to live with ambiguity. We need to be adaptable. Well, welcome to the big show. This is more a soccer game than a football match. This is like almost a pickup game, and it's very fast-moving. The United States expects - or is going to try to toss command to someone else pretty soon.

It's a very different sort of game. And I think the military is also, just culturally, having a hard time adjusting to it.

INSKEEP: Because you're suggesting that the military would be more comfortable with what was once called the Powell Doctrine. If you're going to go after a country, go after them with overwhelming force, destroy them and get on with things. And we have a situation here where, as we've heard elsewhere in the program from former Ambassador John Negroponte, the Obama administration is going along with this coalition, going with consensus - which is a no-fly zone - even as they try to pursue this deeper political goal of eventually getting rid of Gadhafi. That ambiguity makes soldiers uncomfortable, you're saying.

Mr. RICKS: Very uncomfortable. And also, the consensus changes every day. Now, I actually think that's a realistic approach. The nature of war is that things change when you begin war, which is what we're in: a small war now. I also think that all the talk I'm hearing from the military of what's the exit strategy is simply a false question. I have never seen an exit strategy plan that works. I think it's actually a false concept.

INSKEEP: You mean it's too early to figure out how we get out of this.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah. You can figure out what your goals are, what you're trying to do, and I think that's good. But actually saying: Here's what we're going to do, and then here's how we're going to get out - no, that's not going to happen. Never has, never will.

INSKEEP: Here's a tough question, a dicey question that I need you to answer and 20 seconds or so, Tom: When military officers speak of President Obama and his leadership, do they speak with confidence?

Mr. RICKS: No. They speak with puzzlement.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

Mr. RICKS: They're really not quite sure of this guy. He doesn't seem that comfortable talking with the military. They're not sure what sort of military advice he's getting. They're kind of worried by the handling of Afghanistan. So there's a general sort of puzzlement here.

INSKEEP: And that's different from the way that they viewed president Bush.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, at least in the outset. I think by the end of the Iraq War, they were deeply concerned by Bush because they realized that he was peddling a false clarity...

INSKEEP: Okay.

Mr. RICKS: ...and they were swearing off the moonshine at that point.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. Tom Ricks, good to talk with you once again, right here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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