Drones in Libya: What Then?

By James Fallows

A month ago, as the air strikes were about just starting in Libya, I explained why I hoped this would all go smoothly but was apprehensive about the commitment that the Administration, without even the pretense of Congressional buy-in, had just made:

>>The most predictable failure in modern American military policy has been the reluctance to ask, And what happens then?...

Launching air strikes is the easiest, most exciting, and most dependably successful stage of a modern war, from the US / Western perspective. TV coverage is wall-to-wall and awestruck. The tech advantages are all on our side. Few Americans, or none at all, are hurt. It takes a while to see who is hurt on the ground.

But after this spectacular first stage of air war, what happens then? If the airstrikes persuade Qaddafi and his forces just to quit, great! But what if they don't? What happens when a bomb lands in the "wrong" place? As one inevitably will. When Arab League supporters of the effort see emerging "flaws" and "abuses" in its execution? As they will. When the fighting goes on and the casualties mount up and a commitment meant to be "days, not weeks" cannot "decently" be abandoned, after mere days, with so many lives newly at stake? When the French, the Brits, and other allies reach the end of their military resources -- or their domestic support -- and more of the work naturally shifts to the country with more weapons than the rest of the world combined?...

I hope to be proven wrong in these concerns. I hope the results are swift, decisive, merciful, and liberating, and that they hasten the spread of the Arab Dawn. But I assert that it is much better to be proven wrong in that way, and to have thought too much about "What happens then?" possibilities -- than to have thought too little about them, which I fear we have done.<< 

A month later, I still hope that the results as as swift, merciful, etc as they can be, and that Qaddafi goes sooner rather than later. But with the announcement today that President Obama has approved the use of Predator drones with Hellfire missiles in Libya, it is time to ask again: What happens then? David Ignatius of the Washington Post, no softie about the use of U.S. power (and, for the record, a very long-time friend of mine), spells out just now some of the "what happens then?" problems and complications of this step.

>>Drone attacks have become an addictive tool of U.S. national security policy...My quick reaction, as a journalist who has chronicled the growing use of drones, is that this extension to the Libyan theater is a mistake. It brings a weapon that has become for many Muslims a symbol of the arrogance of U.S. power into a theater next door to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the most promising events in a generation. It projects American power in the most negative possible way....

[T]he problem with the Predators is that they provide too easy an answer to political and military problems.... And now the United States will use them to beef up a stalemated NATO campaign in Libya, on behalf of a rebel army that very well may include Islamic radicals who, under other circumstances, might themselves have been targets of Predator attack.<<

And then? I'm back in the position of hoping, rather than believing, that this strategy has been thought-through all the way.

UPDATE: Chuck Spinney's observations on this step are worth reading, and not encouraging.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/04/drones-in-libya-what-then/237702/