Coming This Summer, Vietnam II

War and Peace

Summer is traditionally the season of sequels, as film studios try to wring more money out of a familiar franchise; but the stage is being set for a most unwelcome rerun: another version of the Vietnam War, and like most sequels, this one will feature a different setting – trading the jungles of Southeast Asia for the deserts of Libya.

The inexorable slide of mission creep from the original humanitarian no-fly zone over Libya picked up speed last week as European powers France and Great Britain both signaled their willingness to send in military “trainers” to try to whip Libya's enthusiastic but strategically inept rebel army into a cohesive fighting force. This past weekend, one of the United States Senate's foreign policy graybeards - John McCain - boldly threw his support behind the rebel movement with a surprising in-person visit to the rebel capital, Benghazi. McCain went on to call for the ouster of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, additional support for the rebel militia and formal recognition of the rebel's revolutionary council in Benghazi as the legitimate government of Libya.

You would think that McCain, a former Air Force pilot who spent six years as a “guest” of the North Vietnamese in the notorious Hanoi Hilton would know better. The United States spent the better part of two decades in Vietnam supporting the government of one half of the nation in a war against the leaders and military of the other half. The United States' involvement in Vietnam did not start out as an overt combat mission as it did in Iraq, rather America began by first sending soldiers in the guise of military advisers to train the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (the Arvin troops as they came to be known) to fight the North's Viet Cong militias. The thing is that when you train troops engaged in ongoing combat with enemy forces, you tend to get drawn into combat yourself, which is what happened in Vietnam and what will likely happen in Libya if France, Great Britain and whomever else make good on their considerations of sending military advisers to train the Libyan rebels.

I will admit that I supported the initial idea of a humanitarian no-fly zone over Libya – Gadhafi's military was poised just outside of Benghazi, the outright capture of the rebel stronghold seemed all but certain, as too did the likely slaughter of the city's civilians who had dared to rise up against the Gadhafi regime. Arguably the no-fly zone and its associated airstrikes prevented this from occurring. But Gadhafi has demonstrated by the carnage he has inflicted upon Libya's third largest city, Misurata, that he doesn't need an air force to flatten a rebellious city.  In the process, Gadhafi has again illustrated the willfully ignored weakness in today's smart-bomb, high-tech version of warfare: the technology works wonders, but only under certain circumstances. Gadhafi's generals moved their tanks and heavy weaponry into Misurata's narrow streets. While a laser-guided smart bomb can easily be landed directly on the turret of an enemy tank, a 500-lb bomb also has a blast radius of about 100 yards, meaning that dropping one on a tank within an urban space would make for a very bad day in the neighborhood. 

Worse still for the international anti-Gadhafi coalition, is the realization now that they began the Libyan mission under a mistaken premise. It was assumed that Libya was like Tunisia and Egypt, where a restive population lived under fear of an oppressive and brutal leader. The no-fly zone was meant then to be a demonstration of faith; a declaration in jets and bombs that the West, along with some bit roles played by Arab League members Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, would support and protect the freedom-seeking Libyan people if they rose up against their tyrant. As Egypt and Tunisia had shown, once a people lose the fear of their leader, that leader soon falls. But instead, Libya has proven to be more like the Ivory Coast, where two rival factions are facing off against one another. The current situation in Libya is arranging itself along the old cultural divide of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica, the historic regions centered around Tripoli and Benghazi respectively. Tripolitana, the more populous region has been the dominant force in modern Libya, now Cyrenaica wants their turn at the helm.

Libya then is less of a popular uprising and more an example of your classic civil war, which is why the international community needs to dial back the rhetoric and proceed with caution. It seems clear now that air power alone will not remove Gadhafi from power, but sending in military advisers is a good way to find yourself embroiled in someone else's civil war. Even more seemingly benign steps like recognizing the Benghazi government or simply providing arms to the rebels are problematic. Does the council in Benghazi truly represent the will of the Libyan people any more than Gadhafi's Tripoli-based government, or is it an expression of the desires of the people in Benghazi alone? And it's worth remembering that years ago it seemed like a good idea to arm the Afghan mujahedeen in their struggle against the Soviet-backed Afghan government...

Libya today presents a frustrating situation without a clear path forward, but then again, that's usually the way quagmires are.        

John McCain, Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, US Foreign Policy