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Michael Desch Suggests “Limited Liability” Plan for Libya

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With the U.N. recently authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya, University of Notre Dame political scientist and international relations expert Michael Desch proposes a “limited liability intervention strategy” with the country.

“A limited liability strategy for Libya—one that aims to balance Qadaffi’s military power without committing the United States to deeper and longer-term involvement—would make both strategic and moral sense,” says Desch, chairman of the University’s Department of Political Science.

“There is a chance that small-scale employment of U.S. military force might tip the balance in favor of the rebels and end a growing humanitarian crisis without sucking us into yet another major commitment in the Middle East.”

Citing the most recent successful use of limited liability strategy, Desch points to Afghanistan immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when “the combination of U.S. air power and the Northern Alliance cavalry quickly drove Osama bin Ladin’s Taliban allies from power in Kabul. Had the United States not taken its eye off Afghanistan before the Battle of Tora Bora in December of 2001 to begin pivoting for its massive intervention in Iraq, we might have captured or killed bin Ladin and closed up shop before most Afghanis realized we had even been there.”

Historically, the Qaddafi regime, while odious, has posed only a minor threat to U.S. lives and property, according to Desch—and the U.S. could continue to live with his leadership since it presents no existential threat to our security.

“But if we set overly ambitious goals for ourselves, such as stopping the violence immediately and fostering a vibrant democracy in a deeply fractured and painfully backward society, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. The last thing we want is to put ourselves on the slippery-slope of deeper involvement in what could be a protracted civil war,” says Desch.

An effective limited liability approach would consist of three components:

The first would be the recognition that unlike Iraq, and like the “good war” in Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. has potential indigenous allies on the ground there who are willing to fight to topple the incumbent regime.

“We can limit our involvement to air power and to otherwise holding other people’s coats,” Desch says.

“Second, we actually have a reasonable track record of marrying our high-technology advantage in air-power (not just manned aircraft but also cruise missiles and unmanned drones) with the low technology skills of even fairly primitive allies.”

Finally, the most important element to this strategy, Desch believes, is defining modest goals.

“If we go into Libya thinking that to be effective we have to completely destroy his air force and air defense system to tilt the balance in favor of the rebels, that once anti-Qadaffi forces prevail, Libya will become a robust Arab democracy—then we are setting ourselves up for a big fall.”

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