The Obama administration has come under fire for its slowness in responding to the Libyan crisis, its apparent unenthusiastic stance once it did get involved, and its desire to hand off the mission to Europeans as quickly as possible. The administration has also been criticized for failing to involve Congress in the decision-making leading up to the military operation and for its apparent failure to develop a clear road map for what to do next.

Most of these criticisms have a kernel of truth -- indeed, although the mission has been effective in averting a humanitarian debacle so far, it has been ugly in some ways. But as Ivo Daalder, now the U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and I argued about the Kosovo war a dozen years ago in our book, Winning Ugly: NATO's War to Save Kosovo, an ugly operation is not the same as a failed operation. In fact, even a mission that starts off badly can turn around if policymakers start to give thought to the full range of outcomes that will be acceptable and what it will cost to achieve them. It is far too early to say for certain that Operation Odyssey Dawn will turn out as well as the 1999 war designed to stop Slobodan Milosevic's violence against ethnic Albanians in what was then the Serbian province of Kosovo. Much can still go wrong, as it did in Kosovo. But on balance, this operation is off to a far better start than that one.

In the run-up to the Kosovo war, there was less disagreement among NATO members about getting involved, although Greece was more opposed to war then than Turkey is today. Still, given Russia's opposition to using any force against its long-standing ally in Kosovo, NATO had to launch its operation without a UN Security Council resolution, which only complicated the mission at the end, when Russia unsuccessfully tried to compete with NATO for control over northern Kosovo in the postwar peacekeeping mission. And the war got off to a terrible start: rather than protecting ethnic Albanians, the initial campaign instead prompted Milosovic to intensify his pogrom against them, as he realized that the alliance had not planned a militarily effective operation. Indeed, NATO's leaders had predicted that a few days of pinprick attacks would be enough to stop the Serbian thug, and they had failed to plan for any possible escalation if they were not. Tellingly, the United States had even redeployed its only aircraft carrier stationed in the Mediterranean just a few days before initiating hostilities; keeping to the Navy's schedule for ship rotations apparently mattered more than keeping ready combat power in the region.

This time, the United States has been more careful. Both here and in Europe, military leaders have not promised that the mission would be a military cakewalk. In the U.S. debate, Daalder, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have all warned about the limited effectiveness of no-fly zones. Some have interpreted their statements as hedges against the possible failure of a military mission that they did not want to conduct, but the remarks should in fact be read as a combination of prudence and public education. Their statements have certainly been vindicated. The imposition of the no-fly zone has been a violent affair that has produced no quick victory despite already having gone well beyond standard procedure to include destroying much of the Libyan air force and attacking ground combat vehicles. It has so far provisionally achieved its core goal of protecting the rebels and civilians in pro-rebel areas. And although Libya's Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi has certainly not backed down, he has not escalated his onslaught, as Milosevic did, nor has he even repeated his threats to show "no mercy" to insurgents. In both Kosovo and Libya, the United States has walked a strategic middle path between decisive force and passivity.

In both cases, the U.S. president ruled out any use of ground troops early on. That decision was likely ill-advised in Kosovo, especially when combined with the United States' other signs of irresoluteness in the war's early days, but it is probably correct in Libya, since airpower will be more potent in the country's open terrain (and is already being used to greater effect). But even though they were reluctant to commit troops, both U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama felt the need to do something -- Clinton because he regretted standing by early on as the conflict in Bosnia started and during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Obama largely because he is advised by several of the same people who experienced the Bosnia and Rwanda debacles firsthand.

Yet the impulse to do something, as Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, famously warned in the early 1990s, can be dangerous. Allied help, a balanced approach, and noble intentions do not necessarily add up to guaranteed victory. The Kosovo war would have been a debacle had it ended after the first month, as Milosevic drove hundreds of thousands from their homes. This scenario looked entirely possible until NATO dramatically intensified its operations and started to hint at a possible ground invasion. And the Libyan engagement, although effective so far in stemming Qaddafi's onslaught, could still produce a stalemate that leaves him temporarily in power in Tripoli and its environs. Perhaps a worse outcome would be if the United States helped the rebels just enough to keep them fighting but not enough to resolve the conflict. Libya might become a bleeding ulcer that al Qaeda could try to exploit. In war, it is not enough merely to make a good effort; a good outcome is also a necessity.

It would be preferable, of course, that Qaddafi leave. And it seems plausible that he could be driven from power partly as a result of the military operation. To raise the probability of that happening, some steps that go beyond the Kosovo precedent, including transferring defensive arms, communication gear, and logistical support to the rebels are worth considering. But in the end, Libya is not important enough and Qaddafi is probably not dangerous enough for the United States and its allies to require his unconditional surrender if it proves difficult to get. If the war seems headed for stalemate, there is a range of other outcomes that Washington could live with, just as the United States eventually lived with only achieving limited aims on the battlefield in Kosovo.

Again, that case is instructive. In Kosovo, the United States obtained its initial goal of protecting the Kosovar Albanian population, but only after it almost failed. Although the campaign is considered a success, it was initially disastrous in its net effect on the population and, in the end, came short of achieving what many would surely have preferred -- Milosovic's immediate ouster. In Libya, a simple cease-fire (rather than a peace deal formalizing Qaddafi’s continued role) might be acceptable. It would allow the United States to formally hew to its earlier position that Qaddafi eventually go, while recognizing that it was not in a position to make that happen immediately. Qaddafi would have to accept international monitors to observe his compliance to cease-fire lines. The rebels could pump oil from their respective parts of the country to fill their coffers; by contrast, the world might place sanctions on what Qaddafi could sell. The ultimate U.S. goal would explicitly be reunification but with an understanding that it could take months or even years to achieve that outcome, since Qaddafi's departure from the scene might be a necessary prerequisite and the United States would be using only economic, diplomatic, and legal means to achieve it.

The United States could also accept a government of national unity between the Qaddafi loyalists and the rebels that would give Qaddafi some symbolic role, provided that international monitors are allowed in the country and that loyalists in the military are removed so that Qaddafi would be less able to relaunch war. His duplicity in the 1980s, when he promised to end Libyan operations in Chad, only to resume them later, should be kept in mind, as Kenneth Pollack, the director of the Saban Center for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Brooking Institution reminded at an American Enterprise Institute talk on March 27th. Alternatively, the United States could insist that Qaddafi step down from the national government but allow him some titular role such as "mayor of Tripoli." The national government would then hold elections to replace him in perhaps one to three years.

These are not the full range of acceptable options, but they do indicate that there are end states in Libya that -- however much they may make the United States and its allies hold their noses -- would still be preferable to a prolonged war and another protracted occupation of an Arab land. Again, Kosovo is instructive. The United States tolerated Milosevic staying in power in Serbia after the Kosovo war, and his own people ultimately held him accountable and drove him from office some time later. Qaddafi should ultimately be unseated, either by his own people or the international community after the war. But, as with the other occasion in which the United States "won ugly" by airpower and patient diplomacy, there are reasons to hope that the United States can accomplish some of these goals over time, without insisting on achieving all of them immediately and at gunpoint. Of course, a rapid military defeat of the mad dog of the Middle East would be preferable, but it may not be possible to secure at a reasonable cost right now.

For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next.

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  • MICHAEL O'HANLON is the Director of Research and a Senior Fellow of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.
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