Friday, April 15, 2011

Alex Wilner: Gaddafi drives tanks through cracks in NATO’s resolve

NATO's intervention in Libya isn't warfare; it's a bargaining strategy.

The coalition isn't trying to destroy Libya's military or directly topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime. Instead, NATO is using limited air strikes to try to convince the regime to comply with its various demands.

The strategy is primarily about using air power to inflict sufficient damage to Libyan interests that Gaddafi changes his behaviour on his own volition. What NATO isn't doing is crushing Libyan forces to the point that Gaddafi is required to change his behaviour because he has no other choice.

The difference is subtle but important. Like previous strategic air campaigns in Iraq and Kosovo, the Libyan intervention is about coercion: threatening and using limited force to compel an adversary to behave in a certain way.

Compared to warfare, coercive air power is a low-cost and low-risk strategy. It's especially attractive in cases like Libya. Because NATO isn't trying to wipe out Libyan forces, it can restrict itself to limited engagement. And because NATO has total air superiority, there's virtually no risk to its pilots. In theory, coercive air power works by convincing a target country that it has nothing to gain by resisting an opponent's demands. In practice, coercion requires that we establish a perception within Libya's leadership that we have the resolve and capability to see our threats through to the end.


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