French recognition of the Libyan rebels likely means NATO goes in, so here are the eight steps it should take

French recognition of the Libyan rebels likely means NATO goes in, so here are the eight steps it should take

France’s recognition today of the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya opens the door for NATO intervening in the civil war, I think.

That’s not a bad thing. As I said the other day, there comes a point when action is necessary. I was worried that we would not move until there was a mass slaughter-and that might come too late.

But that emphatically does not mean that NATO should instantly move to a no-fly zone. Rather, there are a series of steps short of that to consider first. The point of departure should be that there are millions of Libyans willing to fight for their freedom. Let’s first try to figure out how to help them. Here are the eight steps to take, in order:

–Supply anti-tank weapons, as soon as possible. Rocket-propelled grenades are not that hard to fire, once you know not to fire them from inside a room. They also can take down helicopters.

–Indeed, the biggest air threat presented by Qaddafi’s forces comes not from fighter aircraft but from helicopters, which are harder to deal with in a no-fly zone, because they can take off and land anywhere. But giving the rebels a few RPGs, plus some .50 caliber machine guns, or their East Bloc equivalent, can be a powerful deterrent.

–Provide targetting and troop movement information, especially from signals intercepts.

–Get food into rebel-held areas.

I would hope that those four steps already are being taken. The French intelligence services actually have a very good reputation for being operationally effective, so I would expect that at least some of this stuff is going on. If not, time for President Obama to get on the phone.

In addition, we should ready the next four steps:

–Announce harsh penalties for any foreign mercenaries caught fighting for Qaddafi, but offer amnesty for anyone who stops fighting now and leaves the country.

–Take very public steps for a no-fly zone, like flying half a wing each into the U.S. base in Sigonella, Sicily (which would handle the western end of Libya) and the U.S. base at Souda Bay, Crete (from which the eastern end of the country would be patrolled).

–Prepare to announce a no-fly zone, but only do it if we are sure we can do it and sustain it for several weeks or even months. 

–As I’ve said before, if we decide to actually put in people on the ground, like for a snatch-and-grab of Qaddafi, we then would want to do a no-fly zone simultaneously, just to make it more difficult for Qaddafi to move around and to pour sand into the gears of his command-and-control system.

As it happens, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Brussels today so he likely will have some interesting conversations on all this.