The tide seemed to turn in an instant. After six months of fighting and thousands of NATO air sorties, the Libyan civil war rapidly reached its endgame late last month, as internationally-backed rebel fighters stormed Tripoli.
Mostly, it was a victory for the Libyan people, who have long suffered under Moammar Gadhafi’s dictatorial rule. But the fall of Tripoli was also an apparent success for a new U.S. military strategy, one gaining favor as the bloody, expensive land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan slowly wind down.
It’s called ‘offshore balancing,’ and it’s an approach meant to minimize long-term deployments of large ground armies by emphasizing air and naval forces working in conjunction with local and regional “proxy” armies. In coming years, offshore balancing could guide the United States’ interventions in world crises, particularly in the Asia-Pacific.
Any U.S. president thinking of fighting another land war in Asia should “have his head examined,” former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in February. In 2009, Vice President Joe Biden famously proposed quickly off-shoring the Afghanistan war, a notion Barack Obama rejected in favour of a slowly-shrinking major ground presence through 2014, with a likely shift to offshore balancing after that date.
“The Libyan intervention, which involves only air and naval assets and no ground forces, is an excellent example of offshore balancing,” wrote Lawrence Korb, a veteran analyst with the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. But there’s an even better example, one that could either reinforce support for offshore balancing or doom the concept – and at the very least serves as an important test case.
The complex U.S.-led intervention in Somalia, a decade in the making, represents offshore balancing at its most potent and urgent. The Libyan rebellion was outside the United States’ core interests. For Washington, intervening in Libya was optional. But Somalia, a failed state since 1991 and an Al Qaeda safe haven, represents a direct threat to the United States, and indeed has inspired the first American suicide bombers.
If offshore balancing, with its emphasis on air and sea power and proxy armies, is to define the U.S. strategic approach to Asia and the Pacific, it first must succeed in Somalia.