"Mission creep" is the phrase of the week in arguments over what to do, or not do, about Libya, spurred on by news that France and the UK are sending military advisers to assist Libya's rebels in their war to oust strongman Muammar Qaddafi.
It's muttered by supporters of international action who nevertheless fret that ground troops could lead to a "quagmire" (another word back in vogue), warned of as potential agent of destruction (for instance, Monday's "We must beware mission creep in Libya" editorial from The Daily Telegraph) and played like a winning card in Twitter fights over the rights and wrongs of intervention. "Mission creep!" in a tweet, to some, wins the argument.
Clearly, mission creep is happening now.
UN Security Council Resolution 1973 calls for the international community "to take all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory."
It makes no mention of removing Mr. Qaddafi from power. But now the UK and France are putting boots on the ground, expressly in support of a rebellion committed to regime change. The UK says it will simply be providing organizational and communications support to the rebels.
While Western powers clearly see wiggle room in the "take all necessary measures ... to protect civilians" bit – under the logic that civilians aren't safe as long as Qaddafi remains in power – the move to send military trainers does sound an awful lot like mission creep. But is such a training mission for the Libyan rebels, carried out by the French or the Americans or anyone that's capable, necessarily a bad thing?
I was in Benghazi in the weeks before and after the UN decision was made. I was shot at by Qaddafi's forces as they assaulted Benghazi on the morning of March 19, hours before French warplanes decisively struck Qaddafi's tanks and rocket-launchers at the edge of town.
I saw first-hand how Libya's second-largest city was spared the deadly asymmetric nightmare currently being experienced in the western city of Misrata, where lightly armed rebels hold parts of town but with Qaddafi's forces routinely peppering civilian quarters with tank and rocket fire.
If putting military trainers on the ground to help rebels saves lives, does it matter if it's mission creep?
This is a tough question.
A 'second Iraq'?
Uber-blogger and political scientist Andrew Sullivan, originally a full-throated supporter of the Iraq invasion (he's since conceded his judgment was poor on that one), is opposed to the UN imposed no-fly zone over Libya and is horrified at the prospect of any Western troops on the ground. He writes his position this time is informed by what he sees as his failure of judgment in 2003.
In a recent post arguing against escalation – and in favor of giving sanctions and internal pressure time to pry Qaddafi from power – he reveals how much the ghost of Iraq haunts him. I've added the italics:
"So far it has done nothing to resolve the civil war except freezing it in place. But as a strategy, it inherently requires time to work – like the incremental but relentless isolation of Iran. [And since the alternative is either to abort the mission or escalate it into a second Iraq], Obama's patient minimalism is the best option we now have."
It seems reasonable to me that there are many possible outcomes other than giving up or getting a "second Iraq." Libya, after all, is a far more homogeneous place, and intervention was spurred by a popular uprising that, when it realized it was no match for Qaddafi's tanks and jets, begged for international assistance.
Is it too late to help the rebels?
Col. (Ret.) Patrick Lang – a man whose career was shaped as a Special Forces officer in Vietnam, as a scholar of Arab culture who founded West Point's Arabic and Middle East program, and as a military intelligence officer in various Middle Eastern embassies and at the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington – supports direct military training and assistance to Libya's rebels. (Lang was staunchly opposed to the Iraq invasion.)
He and other writers at his blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis – many of them, like him, former Special Forces officers who worked with indigenous militias in America's wars – have agreed with critics of the UN intervention that air power alone is unlikely to unseat Qaddafi. But that's led him to call for foreign trainers, which he's convinced could make a decisive difference for the rebellion.
"People live on the ground," Lang wrote yesterday. "Aviators do not live in the air, nor do sailors live in the sea. The people who are always the true objective of any armed conflict live in houses, tents, apartment buildings, etc. They and the land they live on are the objective, always. No matter how much you attack people from the air, someone must always advance and close with the enemy.... Six weeks have been wasted. I understand that both the French and the British will participate in this effort. Perhaps it is not too late."
Is the mission creeping? Yes, clearly. Is success guaranteed for the rebellion? Far from it. But the UK and France appear to be betting that a modicum of organization will do wonders for the so-far hapless rebel army.