Shadow Government

The U.S. is getting drawn into a fight it doesn’t want

Two weeks ago, and again last week, I called for a no-fly zone over Libya. I argued that if the United States did not impose a no-fly zone, it would be sucked into an even more demanding, and risky, military mission in Libya. With the passage of the Security Council’s Resolution on March 17, authorizing ...

Lee Jong-Geun-Korea-Pool/Getty Images
Lee Jong-Geun-Korea-Pool/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, and again last week, I called for a no-fly zone over Libya. I argued that if the United States did not impose a no-fly zone, it would be sucked into an even more demanding, and risky, military mission in Libya. With the passage of the Security Council’s Resolution on March 17, authorizing states to take "all necessary measures" to protect civilians, the door is open for exactly the sort of military action Washington could have avoided.

It is universally recognized that a no-fly zone no longer will be sufficient to stop Qaddafi from continuing to attack his people (his foreign minister’s offer of a cease-fire notwithstanding). There is already talk of U.N.-sponsored forces attacking the government’s tanks from the air, and if those attacks are insufficient to save the rebels, who are on their last legs, an invasion force could still be mounted. The last thing Washington needs is to be seen attacking Libyan armored forces, on the ground or from the air. America is already resented for killing Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should not be seen as killing Muslims in North Africa.

The administration could have avoided this mess. It set the bar against a no-fly zone at a height it thought no one could jump over. First, it demanded NATO support, which it could have obtained as America almost invariably does when it wants that support; in fact, this time France, and not only Britain, was in its corner. But NATO support was an excuse for inaction, and so Washington did little to support Paris or London and NATO did nothing. The administration also demanded Security Council support, so that in the unlikely event that NATO went along, Russia and China could be counted on to prevent any military action from being endorsed by the U.N.

As Qaddafi made it clear that he would stop at nothing to remain in power, the Arab League surprised everyone by endorsing a no-fly zone. Why did it do so? In part because the traditional monarchs, who rely on a subtle and nuanced combination of tradition, popular support, hand-outs, and their secret police — but not brutal massacres — had no truck with Qaddafi, who in any event had overthrown one of their own. Moreover, Egypt and Tunisia, never comfortable with Qaddafi and now rid of their own autocrats, could empathize with the rebels. Syria remained silent; Yemen’s Saleh was in no position to support a brutal dictator while his own public was calling for his departure.

The administration was now in a box it had created for itself. It certainly could not undercut the Arab League, nor could it hold out any longer against the French and British. So overnight Washington became a leader in the call for U.N. action going well beyond the no-fly zone that only days ago it argued was not practical.

What should Washington do now? Calling for Arab participation in military action is not enough; it will not get the U.S. off the military hook. The administration should make it clear that America’s role will be limited to providing logistical and intelligence support, and enforcing a no-fly zone, while its allies attack Qaddafi’s troops on the ground. The Arabs could do this, or the British, or the French, or some combination of all three and of others who wish to join in. At most, the U.S. should take out Libya’s air defenses, which stand in the way of an effective no-fly zone. Even that operation could be conducted by the NATO allies.

Unless the administration specifies exactly what it is prepared to do, and not prepared to do, it will get called upon to do more than it should. And more than it needed to have done had it been more agile two weeks ago. The time for fiddling while the crisis burns has long since passed, the administration, already is singed; it needs to act before it gets truly consumed by Libya’s flames. 

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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