Often compared to President Kennedy, President Obama may well find that Libya has become his Bay of Pigs.
Barely remembered now, the Bay of Pigs fiasco occurred early in the Kennedy administration. It was the first mistake in a string of foreign policy miscues reversed only when the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. The young JFK, badly advised by the CIA, was forced to watch helplessly as a rag-tag invasion force of Cuban exiles was chopped to pieces and the survivors were led away to dungeons — or worse. Castro’s forces won because of a critical battlefield advantage — close air support — that the CIA somehow overlooked. Instead, the Wizards of Langley assumed that the invasion would touch off an unstoppable popular uprising against the Castro regime.
Fifty years later, an eerily similar scenario is unfolding in Libya. The fate of that sandy, oil-rich satrapy — a wholly owned subsidiary of the Gaddafi family — is up for grabs. Although the Libyan protestors once seemed as unstoppable as those ill-fated Cuban exiles, on Saturday the Associated Press reported that “Gaddafi has seized the momentum, battering opponents with air strikes and artillery fire.” The Libyan dictator is using his air force just as Castro did at the Bay of Pigs. His planes are relentlessly pounding the opposition because close air support allows ground forces to mass before closing in for the kill. If he can keep the rebels off balance while controlling the skies, Gaddafi will probably survive.
That is certainly the opinion of our director of national intelligence, retired Lieutenant General James Clapper. In Senate testimony on Thursday, he admitted that, “over the longer term I think [Gaddafi’s] regime will prevail.” Several outraged senators — Lindsey Graham among them — promptly called for Clapper to resign. But I have known General Clapper for over a decade as a highly respected intelligence professional and a long-suffering public servant. He took on the thankless job of leading DNI last year simply because his president asked him to. If his candid assessment of the situation in Libya seems mistaken, try studying more military history. No matter how enthusiastic, amateurs are no more than speed bumps against infantry, tanks and artillery effectively backed from the air. In the half century since the Bay of Pigs, those realities haven’t changed.
Jim Clapper knows just how far his boss will go because intelligence can never substitute for the will or worldview of the decision-maker. The White House has said harsh things about Gaddafi but seems paralyzed whenever asked about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. On Friday, President Obama spoke about the crisis not as a casus belli for American military action but as an opportunity to exercise the seductive shibboleths of soft power: seizing financial assets, evacuating American civilians and imposing economic sanctions. Inexplicably, he added that “we are slowly tightening the noose” on Libya. Sorry, Mr. President, but Gaddafi is the only one tightening a noose here — he’s tightening it around the necks of those unwise enough to fight for freedom. General Clapper may actually have sent a subtle signal: There is no reason to expect either international consensus or more resolute presidential leadership before Gaddafi has effectively crushed the rebellion.
Such an outcome would be even worse than what happened after we decided to leave Saddam in power in Iraq after Desert Storm — easily the worst American foreign policy blunder in a generation. After all, for decades Gaddafi was a notorious supporter of terrorism — and may feel compelled to become one again to settle old scores. But the most immediate effect of the crisis will be to underline our nation’s cascading weaknesses: our bankrupt treasury, our overextended military and our hamstrung diplomacy. These weaknesses will only embolden China, North Korea and Iran — to say nothing of the countries in the Middle East.
Americans only pay attention to foreign policy when they’re forced to pay four (or is it five?) bucks a gallon for unleaded gas. We’re reaching that point just as the Libyan debacle, a tragedy reminiscent of the one that unfolded on the beaches of Cuba fifty years ago, plays out.
Maybe the next Democratic president to whom Mr. Obama will be compared is Jimmy Carter.
Colonel (Ret.) Ken Allard rose from draftee to Dean of the National War College. A former military analyst for NBC News, he is a prolific writer on national security issues.