Two weeks ago, we thought Qaddafi would soon be out of Libya or hanging from a lamp post. But he checked the momentum of the rebels and reversed it with astonishing speed. The optimal result in Libya would be the rebels’ winning on their own, sending a message to others in the region — especially the Iranians — that it’s possible for a determined populace to overturn a hideously repressive regime. That’s not going to be. The question now is whether Qaddafi crushes the rebels with impunity and consolidates his terroristic, anti-American rule.
It is in the interest of the United States that this not happen.
Qaddafi is a murderer of Americans with whom we still have a score to settle. If he survives after we and our allies sought his ouster (even if ineffectually), he will be even more unpredictable; he would be foolish not to restart his WMD programs as insurance against foreign intervention against his regime in the future. Moreover, the United States has staked its credibility on his ouster with President Obama’s repeated categorical statements that he must go. If Qaddafi re-establishes control quickly, it’ll be a blow to U.S. credibility. Finally, a Qaddafi victory will mean a humanitarian and refugee crisis, certainly affecting Egypt, and perhaps Europe.
All this means that we should want the rebellion against Qaddafi to survive. We initially opposed a no-fly zone, but circumstances have changed. We should establish both a no-fly zone and a no-drive zone in the approach to the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi to prevent Qaddafi’s armored vehicles from entering the city. The no-fly zone is unlikely to tip the military balance in itself, but Qaddafi’s air force has been a factor in his fight against the rebels. Coupling a no-fly zone with an effort to stop his advance on the ground should save Benghazi and allow the rebels time to recoup. Ideally, the Egyptians would dispatch peacekeepers to the city. Regardless, we should work with our allies to provide logistics, training, and arms to the rebels.
No military intervention is without costs and risks, but this air campaign would be an intervention commensurate with our interest — not an overwhelming commitment, but a meaningful one. We are not talking of a military operation comparable to taking and occupying Baghdad in 2003. If we check Qaddafi’s offensive, then we can consider other options. Perhaps we will only want to do what’s necessary to maintain the rebels’ enclave so they can fight another day; perhaps we will want to undertake decapitation strikes against the regime in Tripoli; perhaps we’ll want to use the threat of such strikes to try to bargain Qaddafi out of the country.
But the hour is late. Waiting for U.N. or even NATO approval is a formula for inaction. We should consider the request by the rebels and the Arab League all the authorization we need, and assemble a coalition of the willing that should include as much Arab cooperation as possible.
We should have no illusions about the rebels, a rag-tag crew that, no doubt, includes its share of bad actors. The standard here, though, shouldn’t be particularly high — are they better or worse than Qaddafi? It will be hard to do worse, unless they take over and immediately begin hatching assassination plots against foreign leaders and ravaging Libyan society. Even if Qaddafi survives, he will be in a much weaker position with a rival government — recognized by us and presumably much of the region — controlling part of the east than if he rapidly retakes the entire country.
After the Iraq War, we are all mindful of the risks inherent in any military action. The caution of a Robert Gates is understandable, although it’s wrong to assume every U.S. operation must go astray. If we can’t establish a no-fly zone over Libya and stop Qaddafi’s drive toward Benghazi, we really are tapped out as a world power. It’s the least we can do to tip the fight against a dictator with American blood on his hands.