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As Qaddafi Is Buried, a Look Back at the Complexities and Contradictions of the Libya Mission

by Marian Wang
ProPublica, Oct. 25, 2011, 1:28 p.m.

With Muammar Qaddafi now dead in Libya and NATO tentatively winding down its mission there by the end of the month, the Obama administration has claimed another foreign policy victory, touting the fact that “we achieved our objectives” without putting ground troops in Libya.


The path to this point has not been a quick one — or one without legal questions, concerns back home, and substantial cost: An estimated $1.1 billion to the Defense Department alone as of the end of last month, according to a Pentagon spokesman. Here’s a quick look back at how U.S. involvement began and evolved in the eight months since the first airstrikes.

U.S. Leads, Then Asks NATO to Take Over

After several days of Qaddafi’s attacks to squelch planned uprisings in February and his continued threats of violence and use of mercenaries, the Arab League asked the U.S. and other UN leaders to establish a no-fly zone over Libya. The UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the no-fly zone as well as “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.

Then the allied airstrikes began, with the U.S. in the lead. President Obama announced he had authorized “a limited military action in Libya” for the sole purpose of protecting civilians. “We will not — I repeat — we will not deploy any U.S. troops on the ground,” he said.

Facing criticism at home for military action without Congressional authorization, the administration also pledged that U.S. leadership of the mission would be “limited in scope and duration" and said that in “days, not weeks,” leadership would be transferred to a broader international coalition.

When that transfer of leadership to NATO finally happened at the end of March, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified before lawmakers saying that the U.S. had taken on a “support role” and “will not be taking an active part in strike activities.” The United States' limited role in the mission, the Obama administration argued, did not rise to the level of engagement in "hostilities," and therefore did not require congressional approval as specified in the 1973 War Powers Act. As we noted, this unusual legal argument stirred controversy in Congress, and even lawmakers supportive of the Libya intervention ridiculed it as flimsy.

No Combat Boots in Libya, But Spies on the Ground and Drones Overhead

Nonetheless, U.S. aircraft kept striking targets in Libya in early April, clouding assertions that the U.S. had taken a back seat and was simply using its planes for refueling, reconnaissance and other support functions. Pentagon officials said the attacks were not characterized as “strikes” because they were considered defensive missions, as the New York Times and Wired reported.

The CIA, meanwhile, was also in the country providing support to the rebels, though the White House and the Pentagon wouldn’t comment on intelligence matters.

The drone strikes began in mid-April. Then-Defense Secretary Gates announced that the situation in Libya was “evolving,” and the United States had taken on the “very limited additional role” of providing NATO with armed predator drones. He pushed back against allegations of mission creep.

U.S.air strikes and drone strikes over Libya continued until the end. In August, Reuters reported that the Pentagon had actually ramped up the pace of its airstrikes as rebel forces advanced into the Libyan capital of Tripoli, a Qaddafi stronghold.

And U.S. military personnel did, in fact, arrive on the ground in Libya eventually. More than a dozen troops arrived in September as part of a State Department team assessing the damage to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. “When the president made his commitment to no boots on the ground, that obviously had to do with entering the fray between the Qaddafi forces and the Libyan freedom fighters, and that’s not what these guys are engaged in,” a State Department spokeswoman said.

Military Goal vs. Policy Goal

Throughout the Libyan conflict, various statements by administration officials attempted to draw a distinction between the United States’ military mission of protecting civilians and its policy goal of regime change. But practically speaking, the two were at times hard to distinguish — especially with NATO, the coordinating alliance, continually extending the mission and laying the groundwork for a Libya without Qaddafi.

In speeches, President Obama stated that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” but also that “Libya will remain dangerous” until Qaddafi leaves power.

Pentagon officials emphasized that their goal was not to oust Qaddafi militarily. “The mission as currently stated — to prevent a humanitarian crisis — is the right mission at the right time,” said Gates, emphasizing that regime change can take a while, and neither the U.S. nor NATO should exaggerate its ability to influence the outcome.

The State Department, meanwhile, spoke of the need to “finish the job on the ground in Libya” and fully liberate the country. “We have been focused on getting rid of Qaddafi and moving on to a democratic Libya,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in an August 22 briefing.

But with the achievement of the United States’ stated political objective — getting rid of Qaddafi — Pentagon officials have commended the success of the NATO mission and the cooperation of its members. “They accomplished this mission that Gadhafi is no longer, and finally Libya belongs to the Libyan people,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters.

Qaddafi was captured by former rebel fighters and killed after he fled a convoy that had been hit by NATO airstrikes. Libya’s interim leaders have pledged to investigate the precise circumstances of his death, but Panetta confirmed that the initial airstrikes that struck Qaddafi’s convoy were carried out by a U.S. drone along with other NATO planes.

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