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Obama's calculated gamble on Libya strategy

By F. Stephen Larrabee, Special to CNN
Delegates from more than 35 nations, including seven Arab states, heads of U.N. and NATO met at London Conference on Libya.
Delegates from more than 35 nations, including seven Arab states, heads of U.N. and NATO met at London Conference on Libya.
  • Stephen Larrabee: NATO's Libya role could give Europeans more voice in trans-Atlantic affairs
  • He suggests an expanded U.N. mandate could avoid protracted stalemate in Libya crisis
  • Obama gambles in ceding control to Europeans, but it could benefit all, Larrabee writes
  • Larrabee: U.S. must stay involved, providing economic pressure and political support

Editor's note: F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Distinguished Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation.

(CNN) -- The decision by NATO to assume leadership of the military campaign against Col. Moammar Gadhafi's military forces could have a significant impact on future trans-Atlantic relations, giving the Europeans a larger voice in the management of trans-Atlantic affairs. This is something they have long claimed they wanted.

However, if the intervention is to succeed, the United States and its allies need to bring political goals more in line with military means.

Western policy has shown a disconnect between the political goals espoused by its leaders and the military actions allowed by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. The resolution authorizes a no-fly zone and other actions designed to protect civilian lives. It does not support actions to oust Gadhafi, and imposes serious restrictions on the coalition's ability to assist the rebels and achieve broader political goals.

The rebels are a ragtag force. They are poorly equipped and lack experienced professional leadership. Without more active Western support it is not clear that they have the wherewithal to capture Tripoli and overthrow Gadhafi. If the rebel counteroffensive stalls, the Western-led coalition could face a protracted military stalemate, which could last for months -- perhaps longer -- and leave Gadhafi in control of much of western Libya.

NATO might then have to maintain a protectorate in eastern Libya for an indefinite period. Such an outcome could lead to an erosion of public support for the Western intervention.

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An antidote might be for the coalition to seek an expansion of the U.N. mandate allowing the West to assist the rebels. However, it is by no means certain that the Arab League would support such action. Some NATO allies, particularly Germany and Turkey, might also oppose an expansion of the mandate beyond humanitarian protection.

Thus, if the United States presses for a broader mandate, the coalition could begin to splinter, making the pursuit of coherent Western policy difficult.

These problems are compounded by the uncertainty over the future U.S. role, which President Barack Obama insists will be limited. He has rejected sending American ground troops and wants America's European allies, especially Britain and France, to assume greater responsibility for managing the Libyan crisis, with the U.S. in a supporting role.

In principle, this makes sense. It reduces the cost and risk to the United States. However, it is unclear whether the British and French can provide the required leadership. French President Nicolas Sarkozy's attempt to fill the leadership vacuum in the initial phase of the crisis was not encouraging in this regard. Many of his actions seemed designed to promote his own narrow political interests rather than the broader security interests of the West.

Obama's decision to turn leadership of the Libya mission over to the Europeans is a calculated gamble. If it works and the Europeans rise to the occasion, it could set an important precedent and promote a restructuring of trans-Atlantic relations, which benefits both sides.

Pushing the European allies, especially Britain and France, to take more responsibility in managing crises would reduce the costs and burdens on the United States while providing an incentive for the Europeans to take defense more seriously.

It would give the United States greater flexibility to concentrate its attention on crises where its unique capabilities can really make a difference. In addition, it could give new impetus to Franco-British defense cooperation, a trend that makes sense in an era of leaner defense budgets.

However, this does not mean that the United States can completely opt out and leave everything to the Europeans. For the Libyan intervention to succeed, the U.S. will need to remain strongly engaged diplomatically, even if its European allies assume a greater share of the military burden.

Moreover, Western strategy should go beyond providing humanitarian relief and begin to lay the political foundation for a post-Gadhafi transition. The defection of Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, one of Gadhafi's most trusted and loyal confidants, suggests that the airstrikes and economic pressure are taking a toll on the regime.

Thus the Western powers should intensify the political and economic pressure on the regime. If the airstrikes continue to degrade Gadhafi's forces, other high-level officials may decide to follow Koussa's example, narrowing Gadhafi's base of support and hastening the collapse of his regime.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of F. Stephen Larrabee

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