Now that we are committed to a no-fly zone (an unwise idea, I think, given the absence of consistent aims or defined objectives), we must support it and ensure its success.
We must prepare for a number of paradoxes that might arise. For instance, do we attack from the air targets on the ground, given that Qaddafi’s ongoing strategy likely will be to use tanks and artillery, often at night and among civilian landscapes, to beat back the rebels? (I assume that Qaddafi can still quite handily defeat the rebels without jets and gunships.) Does the no-fly zone, in the fashion of its previous counterpart over Iraq, escalate to more offensive tactics, such as taking out depots or armor concentrations, given that we have raised the ante and don’t want our newfound allies to lose with their advantages of Western air cover?
Are we still sort of neutral, or should we begin coordinating our tactics? And given the savagery of the last two weeks and the proclamations that Qaddafi will be subject to international justice, we must be prepared for a bitter finale and for reprisals on all sides. So does our support for the rebels include some efforts to ensure they do not end up doing to their enemies what their enemies did to them? (In this regard, who exactly are the rebels? And what are their aims, methods, and ideology?)
Also, it might be wise not to talk anymore about what we might do, lest we end up in a close-Guantanamo-in-a-year embarrassment. Let Qaddafi guess what our limitations are. To avoid a congressional revolt in the middle of an air campaign, as happened during the Clinton bombing of Milosevic, at some point President Obama needs to get a joint congressional resolution of the sort we saw on Iraq in October 2002.
In sum, I think we are going to learn that stopping Qaddafi’s air power is just the beginning of a messy situation. Qaddafi will be frantically searching for ways — amid public denials — to slaughter the rebels and to embarrass the West that is now committed to defeating him. Given what we know of over 20 years of intervention in the Middle East, we should assume that today’s supporters of action will become tomorrow’s ‘I told you so’ critics. Allies peel off rather quickly; the direction of insurgencies is unpredictable; and air power alone rarely changes conditions on the ground.
Our decision, I’m afraid, does not mean that rebels will soon surge into Tripoli to proclaim a new democratic republic with ample gratitude to the Western planes above them. I hope I am terribly mistaken.