It brings me no joy to admit that as the Editors have moved toward supporting a no-fly zone in Libya I have moved away from it.
In the early days of the Qaddafi counterattack I supported a no-fly zone because I saw a confluence of a clear humanitarian imperative to protect innocents (with reason to believe that the cost in blood and treasure would be minimal) and a national interest in throwing our weight against the rule of Moammar Qaddafi. When it was clear that Qaddafi was using air power to murder and terrorize indiscriminately, the case for grounding his fighters — and putting squarely in the colonel’s court the decision as to whether to escalate in an ill-fated challenge to our air superiority — seemed clear cut. More crucially it seemed clearly delimited. Sure, our air cover would then have provided material aid to the rebels, but it would have been as a byproduct, a kind of positive externality, to a narrower cause: preventing Qaddafi from committing war crimes against his own people.
Now things are different. If we intervene, we will carry the success or failure, and the very existence, of the rebel movement on our shoulders, since it is eminently clear it cannot endure without us. Praise and blame for the outcome in Libya will reside, by right, with us. The enthusiasm of two of the three major European powers, of the Arab League and Lebanon, helps diffuse this, for now. But as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, if we are to create a de facto protectorate around Benghazi (and I don’t care how tailored the security resolution is, that’s the minimalist outcome here, unless we’re willing to let Qaddafi stamp out the last rebel enclave the old-fashioned way, with boots on the ground) we can’t count on an open-ended commitment to share that burden from even our closest allies.
The best outcome I foresee is that Qaddafi makes the same calculation that Saddam Hussein did in the 90s and realizes that losing territorial control over your second largest city is better than having your head on a pike. But I’m not holding my breath. And what happens if the rebels strike out on the offensive again? Do we cover their maneuvers? Move over Bay of Pigs, and welcome to the Gulf of Sidra.
No. Our moment to act in Libya has come — and gone.