President Barack Obama gave the best defense of calibrated warfare in decades (perhaps ever) last night. That is not, perhaps, as much of a compliment as it sounds: I can't think of a previous justification for calibrated warfare. Since Vietnam - a major failure of calibrated war - a series of smart U.S. policymakers has elucidated a clear repudiation of the concept.
Calibrated warfare is military action that falls short of full commitment. It implies that we might be willing to lose the war if it becomes too costly, a dangerous precedent for a superpower. The Weinberger and Powell Doctrines reject this approach, stating U.S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed. We have violated these doctrines frequently, mainly under President Clinton, whose disastrous decisions in Somalia cost thousands of American and foreign lives by convincing our enemies that America would give up once enough G.I.'s had been killed in any given conflict. It took President Bush's ugly subjugation of Iraq to convince the world that America can still handle death.
Calibrated warfare is a dangerous game; clearly, however, it is the right approach to Libya. Obama did an excellent job distinguishing between military and political goals in Libya. Like everyone else, Obama wants Qaddafi ousted. But that goal is beyond the scope of military action, precisely because the cost could match Iraq's. However, the goal of preventing a wholesale slaughter of Eastern Libyans was and is a worthwhile goal for intervention, according to the Obama Doctrine. Thus, he is committed to exercising American power only to meet that goal. If it helps topple Qaddafi, all the better, but we won't be putting Marines into Tripoli to capture the Colonel or to mediate with force between opposing Libyan factions.
This is an important step in formalizing ideas about America's role in the world. We said "never again" after the Holocaust; we said "never again" after Cambodia's killing fields; we said "never again" after Rwanda's genocide; we said "never again" after ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The use of force for humanitarian ends was clearly the only way to stop similar atrocities. Iraq and Afghanistan, however, made it clear that nation-building is beyond the capacity of our military. What's a superpower to do? Clearly stated, sharply delineated goals allow us to step in, stop a madman's military machine, and then step out - even if the result is dictatorship or low-level civil war. We're not trying to give the Libyans a democracy by force, just removing the imminent threat of Qaddafi's military.
Obama's approach is still riddled with problems, however. What happens if an even worse tyrant arises in Qaddafi's place? What if the Benghazi government carries out reprisal killings in the tens of thousands? How do we deal with low-tech massacres like Rwanda, where air power would be pointless? As much as Obama wants to avoid it, the Pottery Barn rule still applies: if a U.S. Air Force-created power vacuum results in the reign of a homicidal maniac, nobody is going to let the U.S. off the hook.