If, as Sun Tzu wrote, “all warfare is based upon deception,” then the war now unfolding in the Libyan desert is one towering with deception. And it appears that the Obama administration is skillfully wielding at least this one deadly principle of conflict.
Operation Odyssey Dawn is no no-fly zone; it is most likely the first, opening gambit of a potentially larger military operation. By expanding the no-fly zone and striking Libyan army units on the move, the operation is seeking to bolster the rebels’ hand, a second phase. The third phase is likely the threat of intervention on the ground, by Arab forces, specifically Egyptian ones. Only this complete range of options can credibly create a diplomatic opening in which Moammar Gadhafi relinquishes power.
In this country and abroad, critics complain that the goal of the operation is unclear. Forcing Gadhafi out, alive or dead, is the goal. Confounding and confusing him is an objective. Consider the sequence of events: a U.N. resolution followed by surprise attack, a no-fly zone that destroys Libyan mechanized infantry on the move, claiming not to target Gadhafi while striking his compound with a Tomahawk, all deftly avoiding the traps of previous no-fly zones.
So, give the initial operation high marks for both tactical effectiveness and strategic deception. Politically it is also brilliant: Gadhafi is a pariah even in the Arab world and as such a handy whipping boy, allowing the United States and its allies to side with revolution instead of dictators they have supported. In geopolitical terms, the operation will send shudders through Damascus, though it will only seed doubt in Riyadh.
However, this deception extends to what is being relayed to the public. There are some very fine hairs being split. The first is the Pentagon’s insistence that coalition forces are not flying Close Air Support (CAS) for the Libyan opposition; this is technically true. Close air support requires a high degree of integration between aerial and ground forces, adjusting both with forward air controllers and special operations forces.
However, coalition pilots appear to be flying Battlefield Air Interdiction (BAI) — which does not require close integration. BAI is NATO doctrine — it was employed in Kosovo — but has fallen in and out of favor with the U.S. Air Force, which may explain why French pilots destroyed a Libyan column. “If they are moving and advancing on to the opposition forces ... yes we will take them under attack,” Vice Adm. William Gortney said Sunday, later adding, “I wouldn’t say close air support for the opposition forces.”
As a result, the second phase of the operation is likely to tilt the balance of power on the ground toward the rebel forces. The expansion of the no-fly zone will help do just that and so will the use of limited amounts of coalition special operations forces on the ground, despite insistence to the contrary. They may not be American but they are no less effective. The British government has admitted, for instance, that it inserted a combined Special Air Services and MI-6 team to contact the opposition.
But the third phase of the operation will most certainly have to do with a credible threat of intervention on the ground. Here another fine hair is being split. President Obama and U.S. commanders have said that the United States will not invade Libya. After Iraq and Afghanistan, this reluctance likely extends to other coalition armies. But it does not preclude the threat of Arab intervention, namely by that of Egypt, a longtime nemesis of Gadhafi.
Already, the Egyptian Armed Forces have been shipping arms to the Libyan opposition, according to The Wall Street Journal, suggesting the generals in Cairo think Gadhafi is not long for this world. Cairo, too, is sending Tripoli mixed signals: shipping arms, receiving a top Libyan official, fretting over Egyptian workers in Libya and then having the new civilian foreign minister say that the government has not announced its participation in military operations. Not that Egypt will not participate.
Only the credible, if veiled, threat of intervention on the ground can close the circle and make the air campaign credible but it carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. The threat may never have to be carried out, but it must be credible. There can be no doubt in Gadhafi’s mind that the carving up of his country and his own death are likely outcomes; otherwise, there is no reason to achieve a diplomatic solution. And that is where Operation Odyssey Dawn will meet its real test: either as a feckless bluff, unmasked at the last minute, as brilliant deception, or as a threat that like all real ones will, indeed, have to be made good.
• Parker is a journalist and regular contributor to McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. He is a former defense correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers, the former associate publisher of The New Republic and has twice been the visiting professional in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com.