Intervention in Libya: No Fight or No Flight?
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates urged Congress last Wednesday to consider the potential ramifications of intervention against Qaddafi in Libya. “Let’s just call a spade a spade,” Mr. Gates said. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts.”
Gates, who is perhaps the most prominent Republican in the Obama administration, as well as a holdout from the Bush years, has said that he will not seek to retain his position much longer. This resolution has apparently granted him the freedom to be remarkably candid about the country’s current and prospective military engagements. His comments on Libya followed the somewhat controversial statement he made a couple of weeks ago at West Point, in which he said: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
A day after Gates’ comments concerning Libya, Obama spoke out, calling for Qaddafi to step down and deliberately straddling the line between not excluding the potential use of force (beginning with a no-fly zone) on the one hand and not locking himself into any promises on the other. Implicit in Gates’ comments is the assertion that Libya, whether or not the circumstances of our entry are different, could devolve into a situation comparable to that in Iraq or Afghanistan, and that such a development would be morally untenable to the American public as well as logistically untenable to the US military. President Obama, it seems, is fittingly cogent of the difficulty in assessing such a comparison’s accuracy.
On the other side of the issue is an unlikely alliance of Congressmen, including John Kerry, Mitch McConnell and John McCain, who all seem to either casually dismiss the comparison as inapt or else view the institution of a no-flight zone as a move that need not necessitate a full commitment on the part of the US military. For the latter viewpoint, the Congressmen have the relative success of our experience in Iraq and Kosovo during the ‘90’s to back them. Against them is the fact that UN resolutions assured an international backing of previous no-fly zones that is not currently available in Libya, as well as the possibility that, after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, neither the Libyan populace nor the world at large may be capable of perceiving US military action (even restrained action) in quite the same light.
The final pudding in which proof of either position must be found is a post-Qaddafi Libya. Were anyone capable of accurately prophesying what such a Libya would look like, it seems that Obama’s dilemma would be solved. Given how little is known about the exact nature of the rebel leadership or its ability to transcend the tribal loyalties that propelled the uprising to success in the east and damned it to a long slog in the west, such prophesying seems unlikely to present itself. In the meantime, the administration is mired in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t position. It is understandable, if unfortunate, that Obama should wish to delay things as long as he can to see if events should render prospects any clearer.
As the administration ponders these two distinct positions, embodied in the contentious possibility of declaring a no-fly zone, there remains a middle way. Providing more material support and weapons to the rebels, perhaps following Kerry’s advice to free up frozen Libyan assets, would insure that the US not be seen as responsible for the future of the country, as we are in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would also, crucially, insure that ‘ownership’ of the revolution stayed in the hands of the citizens who sparked it, just as it did in Tunisia and in Egypt.
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