Tapping Libya with `sledgehammer'. Former top US officers call strike well executed; question whether it will have intended effect
Washington — His first reaction was a professional judgment. As he watched news reports of the raid on Libya last week, retired Air Force Gen. David C. Jones felt proud that the United States had delivered a successful military punch.
``It was a well-planned, well-executed operation,'' he says.
General Jones's opinion perhaps carries special weight: He was the highest ranking uniformed officer in the military from 1978 to 1982, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
Matching the mood in the halls of the Pentagon, Jones says the raid was something that had been made necessary by administration policy and Libyan scheming. But he expresses uncertainty as to whether the US air strikes will eventually make the world a safer place.
``What will be its long-term effect? I don't know. We don't want to get into a tit-for-tat retaliatory cycle,'' the former JCS chairman says.
In Monitor interviews, several other retired top military officers expressed somewhat stronger reservations about the outcome of this US use of force.
Vice-Adm. M. Staser Holcomb, former commander of US Pacific forces and a member of the Vice-President's Task Force on Combating Terrorism, wonders if the US can maintain its guard against the inevitable backlash from the attack.
The US public likes problems to be solved quickly, but support must be maintained for a series of tough antiterrorist actions if Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's adventurism is to be curbed, Admiral Holcomb says. [In Europe, Libya on the defensive, Page 7.]
``Our time horizon in America is pretty short,'' says Holcomb, now a corporate executive. ``We may have tweaked an operation whose attention span is years.''
The US air strikes were a medium use of force, judges the retired admiral, between the two poles of covert action and destruction of Libya's crucial oil facilities. He says the raids were neatly done, with collateral damage as limited as could be expected.
``We've taken a sledgehammer and tapped a couple of times,'' Holcomb says.
Retired four-star Gen. Bruce Palmer Jr. was vice-chief and then chief of staff of the Army during the most crucial years of the Vietnam war. He says he doesn't fault President Reagan for the actions he ordered but judges that the very conception of the attack means its military effect will be small.
Air strikes, according to General Palmer, appeal to political leaders because they seem an immaculate way of fighting wars, with few US casualties and everybody back safe in their bunks the next night.
But the destruction wrought by bombs is fleeting, he says. The Tripoli airport will be reopened soon.
Ever since the plane was invented, history has shown that air power, unless used in massive force or in conjunction with ground armies, serves mainly to unite the people being bombed, Palmer says. He points to the intricately planned, yet ultimately ineffective, bombing of North Vietnam as an example.
``Bombing by itself has not won any wars that I know of,'' Palmer says.
Pressed as to whether the US is really involved in a war with Libya, Palmer snorts derisively and asks whether bombing the home of a head of state constitutes an act of peace.
If US officials really want to use military power as a way of maintaining continuing influence on Colonel Qaddafi, maintains Palmer, they should send a powerful combined force to capture one key spot on the Libyan coast -- an oil shipping terminal, perhaps. ``Then you've got a bargaining position,'' he says. These retired officers also mentioned that secret operations, perhaps by the CIA, could well be useful in ending Libyan support of international terrorism.
But the US public may not accept such activity today, they say, because of past abuses. In addition, though secret destruction might damage terrorism's infrastructure, its very secretness would keep it from giving a morale boost to the people at home, a real and important byproduct of the US air strikes.