Defense Secretary Robert Gates' Fears About U.S. Military Action in Libya
When the Reagan administration proposed a military strike against Libya, Gates balked. Twenty-five years later, he still opposes actions like no-fly zones, believing they would lead to a full-scale effort to topple Gaddafi—and U.S. troops on the ground, writes John Barry.
In his 1996 memoir From the Shadows, Robert Gates recalls that the Reagan administration “wanted [ Muammar Gaddafi’s] hide in the worst way.” The Defense Department even drew up a contingency plan for a U.S.-Egyptian attack on Libya, Gates remembers in the book. Gates, who was then CIA deputy director for intelligence, balked at the idea. He worried about the consequences; namely that such action could spark a global outcry against American imperialism, and an upsurge in terrorism against U.S. citizens and installations.
Twenty-five years later, Gates, now Barack Obama’s defense secretary, is confronting a similar zeal for action against Gaddafi, amid international revulsion against the strongman’s brutal attempts to crush an uprising by Libyans fed up with his 40-year rule. Gates remains worried about the likely fallout from Western intervention in Libya—in particular, the probability of a storm of protests throughout the Arab world, bringing with it terrorist attacks against Americans. In private discussions with congressional leaders over recent weeks, Gates has not ruled out intervention, according to congressional sources, who say he has stressed two concerns: Intervention has to be decisive, and with a clear goal. And it must be international. It would be folly, he believes, for America to go it alone.
Gates is wary of calls for a no-fly zone over Libya, a suggestion being pushed by British Prime Minister David Cameron. Pentagon planners say establishing a no-fly zone probably would accomplish little. And with Washington already having effectively declared war, the inevitable next step would be calls for expanded air operations to attack Gaddafi’s land forces, as Gates foresees it. Step by step, the U.S. would find itself committed to the military overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime. Gates wants everyone to realize that such a commitment would almost certainly require sending in U.S. ground forces.
From the Shadows describes in detail the outcomes of “limited” U.S. engagements in crises around the world. Some turned out better than others: America’s covert arming of UNITA rebels in Angola, for example. But most—the doomed 1982-83 peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, the funding, arming, and training of Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the entire misbegotten Iran-Contra scheme—had consequences that were utterly unanticipated when the interventions were planned. Speaking at West Point in late February, Gates offered his opinion of the two current wars he was tasked to salvage when he took over at the Pentagon: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined, as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
Gates’ fundamental objection to a no-fly zone is that it raises two critical questions: What then? And what’s the goal?
The Reagan administration “had been obsessed with him [Gaddafi] since 1981, and its bill of particulars against the Libyan leader grew longer each day,” Gates writes. By July 1985, the White House wanted action. “What [National Security Adviser Robert] McFarlane, [his deputy, Vice Admiral John] Poindexter, and [hyperactive National Security Council staffer] Ollie North had in mind at this point was a combined U.S. and Egyptian attack on Libya, involving the Egyptian army attacking across the desert and entering Libya from the east, while U.S. air and ground forces attacked Tripoli and other targets.”
“It was, to say the least, an ambitious idea,” Gates comments drily. The Pentagon hated it, he writes: “Defense took CIA’s paper on Egyptian and Libyan capabilities [titled, Gates says, “Options Against Qadhafi”] and drew up contingency plans and the size of U.S. forces required for the NSC-sponsored operation. Because Defense wanted no part of this operation, the plan they prepared looked a lot like the invasion of Normandy on D-Day 1944.”
Gates also resisted the idea, largely because of what he foresaw as its wider consequences. “I told [then-CIA Director William] Casey that the costs and risks included a huge outcry globally against U.S. imperialism, a strong reaction in the Arab world against a U.S. invasion of an Arab country, potentially significant Soviet gains in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Third World, a probably short-term upsurge in terrorism against U.S. citizens and installations, and a potential setback in U.S.-Soviet relations.”
The invasion plan died, but not the desire to strike at Gaddafi. In March 1986, U.S. aircraft flying near the coast were fired upon by Libyan anti-aircraft missiles. The planes sank several Libyan patrol boats and attacked a missile site in Libya. “We learned that, in response, Gaddafi had directed several of his ‘People’s Bureaus” in Europe to plan terrorist operations against the United States,” writes Gates. “We had specific details on nine separate Libyan attacks tasked or under way.” In April, Libyan operatives set off a bomb at the La Belle disco in Berlin, killing two U.S. servicemen and a Turkish woman and injuring 230, among them more than 50 U.S. troops.
A quarter-century on, Gates says U.S. military action in Libya could spur more anti-American terrorist acts, and he is convinced America should not act alone. Those convictions explain why Gates has been so dismissive of proposals for a no-fly zone over Libya. “There is a lot of loose talk, frankly, about some of these military options,” he told the Senate on March 2. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses... That is the way it starts.” Gates could allow himself to be so blunt because the idea had been publicly advocated by a foreign leader, British Prime Minister David Cameron. Britain has nothing close to a capability to mount a no-fly zone on its own.
Gates’ fundamental objection is that the no-fly proposal raises two critical questions: What then? And what’s the goal? U.S. airpower could certainly destroy Libya’s air defenses. Its surface-to-air missiles are Soviet technology from three decades ago. One unofficial but expert analysis has identified 31 active SAM batteries, mostly along the coast, plus 17 active early-warning radar installations.
Nevertheless, Pentagon planners have come to two conclusions. First, to destroy those facilities would take more airpower than U.S. carriers alone could mount, so airbases in Europe would be needed. (The U.S. base at Sigonella in Sicily is one obvious choice.) Second, merely establishing a no-fly zone would likely accomplish little. Grounding Gaddafi’s air force, in their judgment, might slow but wouldn’t halt Gaddafi’s increasingly organized drive against the rebels. Other NATO militaries agree. “The overall air activity has not been a deciding factor in the ongoing unrest," Ivo Daalder, America’s ambassador to NATO, said Monday, after the council’s first briefing on military contingency planning.
Inevitably, the next step would be calls to expand air operations to attack Gaddafi’s land forces, Gates says, and America would gradually find itself committed to the military overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. In closed-door discussions on the Hill, Gates has acknowledged—if only as a hypothetical possibility—that President Obama might decide to do that, congressional sources say. If word comes of massacres by Gaddafi’s forces, for example, that would increase the pressure for action. But Gates is determined that everyone—not only the president and his National Security Council, but the American public, too—should grasp that Gaddafi’s overthrow would almost certainly require U.S. ground forces.
Any military action—even to create a no-fly zone—would need Europe’s collaboration. NATO is mulling its options, although without much visible enthusiasm, according to sources in Brussels. And the U.S. European Command headquarters has been drawing up its own contingency plans. Not all entail military intervention; planners are also thinking about humanitarian relief in the likely event that insurgent-held towns are besieged. (Supplying the rebels with weapons or ammunition would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution, passed Feb. 27, banning supply of any military equipment not only to Gaddafi but to anyone in Libya. The resolution has a loophole—the council can approve specific shipments—but any such proposal would undoubtedly generate fierce debate among the council’s members. Meanwhile, an administration official acknowledges that the embargo appears to have had little impact on Gaddafi. “It may have been overhasty, in hindsight,” the official says. European leaders are insisting that any intervention must have United Nations approval.
Would the Security Council ever approve military action? British and French diplomats at the United Nations have drafted the guts of a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone. The presumption has been that Russia and/or China would veto it, and some of the council’s current non-permanent members—Brazil and India are mentioned—would likely have qualms. Two developments would be needed to overcome these objections, the British and French think: some triggering event in Libya (most likely a massacre), and public support by regional organizations such as the Arab League. The league has been wavering (its six Gulf states now back a no-fly zone), and diplomats at the U.N. think an upcoming meeting of Arab League foreign ministers next Saturday may see a decision.
Gates is scheduled to attend a March 10 NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels. In theory a decision about a no-fly zone—or other military actions—could be taken then. Before long, a decision may be forced by events, whether massacres by government forces or the near total shutdown of the Libyan oil and gas operations on which Italy’s economy depends. For the moment, though, Libya’s rebels appear to be on their own.
John Barry joined Newsweek's Washington bureau as national security correspondent in July 1985. He has reported extensively on American intervention in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and Somalia and efforts for peace in the Middle East. In 2002, he co-wrote "The War Crimes of Afghanistan" (8/26/02 cover) which won a National Headliner Award and was a finalist in the ASME National Magazine Awards for public service and a finalist in the SPJ Deadline Club Award for investigative reporting.