As the war in Libya drags on, the United States faces a familiar predicament: Why, despite possessing overwhelming military superiority over any foe, does it have such a hard time using the threat of force to push much weaker dictators around?
This isn't a new problem. During the 1990s, the United States and its allies found it much harder than expected to convince Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to stop repressing opposition groups and open suspected weapons facilities to inspectors, to protect civilians in Bosnia, to force Somali warlords to stop pillaging humanitarian relief efforts, and to compel Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to end his violent ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo.
A decade ago, we wrote a
book pondering this very puzzle. The short answer was that political
constraints often bind the United States and its coalition partners much more tightly
than their adversaries, and in ways that offset advantages in raw military
power. Those painfully learned lessons apply more than ever in Libya today and
help explain why Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi isn't flinching against the
world's most sophisticated military forces -- despite his near-complete
NATO forces and their Libyan rebel allies have scored some notable successes over Qaddafi. Eight high-ranking Libyan officers, including five generals, defected to Italy this week. Rebel forces drove Qaddafi's troops back from Misrata last month, ending the suffocating siege of the strategically located city. But despite these advances, neither side appears poised to break out of the months-long military stalemate in western Libya.
NATO is not attempting to bring about a complete military defeat of Qaddafi, which would require a much larger military effort, but is instead trying to impose sufficient costs that his regime either surrenders or collapses. Airstrikes targeting the leadership compound in Tripoli, while ostensibly designed to degrade Libyan command-and-control capabilities, are also likely intended to hit Qaddafi and key regime figures. At the same time, international financial and military assistance to the ragtag rebel forces is intended to bolster the internal revolt against his regime. But targeting elusive (or at times just well-bunkered) regime leaders from the air is hard, and, so far, Qaddafi is showing resilience and resolve -- much more than many advocates of intervention expected.
Six factors drawn from recent decades' experience explain NATO's difficulties -- and why the Libya war could drag on for a long while longer.