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The time for a no-fly zone is now

The time for a no-fly zone is now

The calls by liberals like John Kerry, and some not-so-liberal types like John McCain, have prompted a reaction from both the administration, which prefers meaningless pronouncements over concrete action to influence events on the ground, as well as from solid conservatives like my colleague and friend Kori Schake, who worry about the true nature and intentions of the Libyan opposition. In the meantime, however, Muammar al-Qaddafi continues both to profit from oil revenues — Libya is still exporting oil — and to kill his own people. His aircraft continue flying with impunity, and bombing targets on the ground. Just as the Obama administration’s bluster has had no effect whatsoever on the course of the civil war, so too have the much vaunted sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council done little to unseat the Libyan madman.

Some of Libya’s rebels are saying they do not want U.S. intervention; others are pleading for it. And it is true that no one knows who these rebels really are. So there is much to the argument that arming these people — who in any event have managed to obtain arms on their own — may not be a terribly good idea. In addition, since at least some of the rebels themselves have stated that they oppose American air strikes, much less any sort of intervention on the ground, there is no reason for the United States, or any of its reluctant allies, to contemplate such actions.

At the same time, however, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Pentagon have gone much further: they insist that any kind of military action — even a no-fly zone — simply places excessive demands on U.S. resources. Libya’s air defenses would first have to be demolished, they posit, and even then, the country is just too big. And, they argue, any action by the United States must be taken in conjunction with its allies — meaning NATO. Since several NATO states, notably Turkey, are averse to interfering with Mr. Qaddafi’s bloodletting, nothing will happen. How convenient.

The Obama administration appears unclear about why a no-fly zone is called for. It is not just a matter of the rebels’ interests; it is, first and foremost, in U.S. interests. After all, what if Qaddafi were to defeat the rebels because there was no interference with his air strikes against them, which are increasing with every passing day. Would his victory serve U.S. interests?

The administration seems to prefer to gloss over the fact that Libya’s air defenses hardly should be a threat to a major carrier-based "alpha strike," or an attack by land based aviation — or both. The United States has some 200 aircraft within striking distance of Libya, a much easier target to deal with than, say, Afghanistan or Iraq. And U.S. aircraft could deploy from, and be supported by, a host of bases strung among its Mediterranean NATO partners. If these forces nevertheless are deterred by Libya’s third-rate air defenses, one might rightly wonder how the United States Navy and Air Force might be expected to face a truly formidable foe.

Similarly, the administration’s argument about Libya’s size is rather specious. A no-fly zone would not have to extend very far inland at all; Libya’s key cities are in or near its Mediterranean coastline and a no-fly zone need not last for years, as it did until Iraq was invaded in 2003.

As for NATO approvals, it is one thing to mount a major ground attack, for which allied support, and a U.N. resolution, may well be appropriate. But a no-fly zone is something else. How heavily did the Clinton administration rely upon other forces to maintain the no-fly zone over Iraq?

Ultimately, if Libya’s bloodbath continues, as no doubt it will, pressure will mount for military action that goes well beyond a no-fly zone. And if Qaddafi then falls, no matter who succeeds him. The United States will once again be blamed for bring about "regime change." The Arabs will resent U.S. intervention and they will find a way to blame Israel for it all. In due course, American flags will once again be burned on the Arab "street" throughout the region.

It would be so much more advantageous to long-term U.S. interests if Washington were to mount a no-fly zone operation now — including knocking out Libya’s air defenses — so that more members of Libya’s armed forces will be encouraged to defect from Qaddafi, without the United States having to intervene on the ground. The alternative, which the administration continues to prefer, is to sit back and let events dictate what the United States should do. This is not policy; it is hand-wringing of the worst sort.