What Are The Coalition's Goals In Libya?
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
How does the operation in Libya end? What defines success? Military commanders charged with enforcing the U.N. resolution are very guarded about that. Today, a reporter asked General Carter Ham, the commander of AFRICOM, if he could imagine an end to the current mission that leaves Colonel Gadhafi in power. While that is hardly ideal, the general said, it is possible.
General CARTER HAM (Commander, AFRICOM): I could see accomplishing the military mission, which has been assigned to me and the current leader would remain the current leader.
SIEGEL: In Chile today, President Obama drew a distinction. The military mission, he said, is in support of the U.N. resolution to protect civilians. But...
President BARACK OBAMA: It is U.S. policy that Gadhafi needs to go.
SIEGEL: Well, joining us to talk about how this might end is Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of State and now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Welcome to the program once again.
Professor NICHOLAS BURNS (Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): Thank you very much, Robert.
SIEGEL: First, General Ham was at pains to say that his mission is protecting civilians. It's not about providing support to Libyan rebels, he said. It's not about removing Colonel Gadhafi. Do you think that's true? Or is the general trying to avoid stating the obvious that it's about regime change?
Prof. BURNS: Well, I think, first of all, Robert, the coalition has been successful in its first days. They stopped Gadhafi's offensive. They deterred a possible humanitarian disaster in Benghazi, an attack on Benghazi, and they've revived the opposition.
But here's where it gets murky. I think that the gamble that President Obama and the coalition leaders have taken is that they have not clearly defined the mission. They say that they're trying to protect civilians, fulfill a U.N. Security Council resolution. But they've also said, President Obama said, Gadhafi must go and we bombed Gadhafi's personal compound yesterday. He's going to take that personally. He, Gadhafi, is going to believe that we're in this war against him. And, frankly, it's hard to see an end to the war where Gadhafi isn't removed from power.
SIEGEL: And so General Carter Ham's comments not withstanding, the end of this, you figure, has to be Gadhafi goes.
Prof. BURNS: I think so. And I think the problem that the administration is having is that they want to have a very narrow definition of what they're trying to achieve. But we have intervened in a civil war. We've intervened on behalf of a rebel army. And whether that was the right decision or the wrong decision, it's been made and we're there.
We have now put in place a no-fly zone and, in effect, a no-drive zone because we bombed an armored column outside of Benghazi yesterday. And so, we're now an actor in this civil war. I find it difficult to believe that we can simply withdraw in a matter of days or weeks or hold ourselves up as some kind of mediator, because we have taken sides. And the rebel army is going to want now to go back on the offensive.
Once they do, are we going to fly air cover for them? Will we give them military assistance? It's extremely murky. And therefore, this is a very difficult beginning to a complex, difficult and dangerous mission.
SIEGEL: Nicholas Burns, you were at the State Department, longtime career diplomat, when no-fly zones were imposed in Iraq and also in the former Yugoslavia.
Prof. BURNS: Right.
SIEGEL: Should we draw a lesson from those experiences that a no-fly zone is not a stable condition? That it very easily expands to tactical air support or ground support for one party to a civil war, if not, to an all-out war on its behalf.
Prof. BURNS: Well, I think the lesson is that a no-flight zone cannot be a strategic end unto itself. It's a tactic. It's a tactic in this case meant to weaken Gadhafi, to take away his offensive firepower, to protect civilians in Benghazi, but also to protect this rebel army. The other problem I think the administration has is that we're fighting on behalf of a rebel army that we literally don't know.
Now, they may turn out to be friendly towards the United States should they take power. They may turn out to be unfriendly. But it's one of the first times I think in our entire history that I can think of where we've introduced American military power on behalf of a group of people that we don't know. We don't know them. We haven't met them. We don't know what their collective ideology is even if they have one.
And so, I understand the reasons why the president felt compelled to act and I do think his actions have averted a humanitarian crisis over the weekend. But now we face these considerable barriers to success and I do think it's important to clarify this mission.
SIEGEL: Well, Nicholas Burns, thank you very much for talking with us once again.
Prof. BURNS: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of State, now a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
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