Libyan Raid Didn't Employ Vietnam's Lessons
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
Two debates have emerged in the aftermath of the U.S. bombing of Libya last week that are likely to intensify in light of President Reagan's remarks on Monday that various European leaders suggested a stronger U.S. military response to Col. Muammar Qadhafi's sponsorship of terrorism.
One debate concerns the propriety of responding to terrorism with conventional force; the other concerns the way that force should be used. For the sake of argument, let us finesse the first issue and assume that force against Col. Qadhafi's Libya is justified and useful. Instead, let us consider the ways it was used on April 14. What were the goals? Was the strategy employed a correct one? What lessons from this can be applied for the future encounters with Col. Qadhafi?
The U.S. strategy has been spelled out in a number of statements by President Reagan, Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. On this occasion, the three men publicly agree on all of the critical issues.
They say, in brief, that the U.S. had resolved to use force in a fashion "proportionate" to Libyan actions. Secretary Weinberger noted that we are "sending an unmistakable signal to Qadhafi." All three emphasized that the targets selected for attack had some connection to terrorism, and an intention was expressed not just to punish Col. Qadhafi for actions past, but also to reduce his capacity to engage in future aggression.
Their statements make it clear that the U.S. will respond to Col. Qadhafi's acts by turning the screw—raising the costs he bears whenever he sponsors assaults against Americans. Should he desist, so will we; should he continue, the damage inflicted will increase. The guiding philosophy here is "proportionate response" or "incrementalism," a strategy that played a large and important role in the U.S. effort in Vietnam.
At first glance, proportionate response appears to be unobjectionable. Striking the terrorist infrastructure minimizes political objections and reduces casualties, while the threat of escalation gives Col. Qadhafi fair warning that his evil acts will no longer be tolerated.
But the drawbacks of proportionate response outweigh the benefits. The American experience in Vietnam established that incrementalism will not dissuade a determined enemy. To the contrary, this strategy serves as a unilateral restraint on U.S. actions, while almost guaranteeing the enemy sufficient means to continue his war effort. By its nature, proportionate response gives the enemy the choice of time, place and weapon. Our inability to discourage North Vietnam from continuing the conflict should be remembered.
Second—a most subtle point—incrementalism stresses political "messages" at the expense of military objectives. Again, the Vietnam experience should serve as a warning. As Stephen Peter Rosen showed in a 1982 article in the journal International Security, U.S. leaders frequently chose actions designed to signal the enemy, not to defeat him. For example, an intelligence estimate of May 1964 acknowledged that simultaneously bombing and negotiating with Hanoi "would not seriously affect communist capabilities to continue that insurrection," but it would affect Hanoi's will to some extent, and it would signal U.S. intentions.
The result of such thinking, Mr. Rosen notes, was that "concentrating on the dispatch of signals diverted attention from a search for military measures that could have been successful." American planners neglected the military problem of how to win the war on the ground. The choice of targets in Libya (which were designed to send Col. Qadhafi a message but were not really intended to cripple his capabilities) suggests that these discredited notions are still alive.
Third, incrementalism threatens to drive the enemy into Soviet arms. More than they were a month ago, Libyan leaders today must be contemplating the possibility of granting bases to the Soviet Union. Should its confrontation with the U.S. continue, the Libyan regime will seek more sophisticated arms, more political backing, and other forms of Soviet support, and it will more readily pay whatever Moscow demands in return. Would Soviet ships now be docked in Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay were it not for the U.S. policy of incrementalism in Vietnam?
Fourth, incrementalism is unsustainable. Short of a full-scale war with Col. Qadhafi, Americans will debate each response separately. An astute opponent of the U.S. knows that domestic support for the administration's hard line will decline as incidents continue. He also knows that the U.S. cannot respond to every attack on an American in Europe or the Middle East with an air attack on Libya. Already, a U.S. Coast Guard installation has been attacked and an American in Khartoum, Sudan, has been shot, without there being the swift and sure response that U.S. officials indicated would be made.
Finally, surgical strikes are not as surgical as one would like. Whether caused by an out-of-control F-111 or Libyan anti-aircraft missiles falling back to ground, collateral damage in the Libyan cities was far greater than expected. In all likelihood, future operations will entail similar costs. This weakens the case for a controlled response, and argues in favor of less restraint.
Many U.S. allies apparently have reservations about proportional response. According to President Reagan, some European leaders suggested that the response against Col. Qadhafi not be a fast raid but a "real major action" that would have been a joint exercise with one or more of America's European allies.
Whether with allies or alone, the U.S. should next time go all out against an enemy like Col. Qadhafi—destroying his military capabilities, incapacitating his economic facilities, hunting down his regime's leadership, and so forth.
Obviously, this would raise even more objections among those who oppose the use of force. But how great would the difference be? For many, the simple fact of reverting to force is obnoxious; the number of bombs dropped and their purpose is a secondary consideration. Further, should the American effort succeed, it would silence virtually all objections. Vociferous reactions to the Grenada invasion disappeared within a day or two, when the U.S. prevailed and the fighting ended. So it would be in Libya too.
Mention of Grenada points up a second advantage to a lethal attack on the Qadhafi regime: Although Libya is a vast desert country, nearly all human habitation is within a few miles of the coast. Libya is functionally an island, highly vulnerable to U.S. military strength in the Mediterranean Sea.
Until now, Libya has not benefited from direct Soviet protection. Soviet ships apparently left Libyan waters when they saw the possibility of a U.S. strike. However much Libya's friends fulminate, there is little likelihood of anyone going out on a limb for Col. Qadhafi.
Like Grenada, Libya is unusually vulnerable to American power. It would be a terrible mistake to conclude from these two cases that the U.S. can effect quick political upheavals anywhere it chooses, but such cases do exist. Where they do, and where an obnoxious government threatens American interests, full advantage should be taken of our good fortune.
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