As the democratic awakening sweeps across the Arab world, the Obama administration is struggling to find the right balance between short-term crisis management and the longer-term need for a new approach that breaks with Washington’s dark history of military intervention and support for autocratic regimes. After some initial missteps, the administration was able to strike, more or less, the right balance in the case of Egypt, using its ties with the Egyptian military to help nudge Hosni Mubarak from power without distracting from the historic display of people power in Tahrir Square.
The latest challenge comes from the deteriorating situation in Libya, where the rapid advance of forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi threatened the defeat of rebel forces. Our natural tendency is to want to help end Qaddafi’s despotic rule and to save the lives of those bravely resisting his onslaught. But it is a difficult challenge to take action that has a reasonable chance of success but that does not arouse popular—and well-founded—suspicions of neoimperial intervention. The catastrophic invasion of Iraq hangs heavy in the Arab world, and Washington’s role in the Middle East is still deeply compromised, with US military aid to repressive regimes like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia now being used to crush peaceful protest and demands for democracy.
As the violence intensified in March, the White House faced a chorus of voices from respected liberals like Senator John Kerry, as well as from perennial hawks like Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, calling for a no-fly zone. The administration was right to resist those calls in favor of a series of UN Security Council–mandated measures—freezing the regime’s assets, imposing sanctions on Qaddafi and his associates and organizing humanitarian assistance—that fell short of military action. The administration has also opened up contacts with the opposition but has not recognized it or provided arms.
Finally, as Qaddafi’s forces closed in on Benghazi, and after the Arab League voted in favor of a no-fly zone, the White House on March 17 joined Britain, France and other members of the UN Security Council in passing a Chapter VII resolution authorizing member states "to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack" by Qaddafi’s forces "while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory."
There are strong arguments in favor of the White House decision. First, there were legitimate worries that Qaddafi’s forces would carry out massacres after recapturing Benghazi and other rebel-held areas. Second, the United States did not lead the charge but acted only after desperate pleas by Libyans under siege and at the urging of Arab League and other multilateral institutions. And Washington has made clear that implementation of the NFZ will have to be genuinely multilateral. So far, the White House has acted with caution and respect for international law. And Qaddafi’s declaration of a cease-fire immediately after passage of the resolution gave hope that it might, through intimidation alone, change the balance of forces and lead to the rapid erosion of his support.
But there are also many reasons for skepticism, and it is far from certain that the NFZ will not lead to other disasters. First, it is not clear that UN forces will be able to avoid civilian casualties. No-fly zones have, at best, a mixed record as a form of humanitarian intervention. Libya may not present the same military challenge as Iraq or Serbia did in the past, but the United States or allies still might have to undertake bombings and cruise missile attacks to suppress Libyan air defenses; no doubt many of these are located in civilian areas. Some civilian casualties therefore seem inevitable. Even with Arab League and other regional support, the prospect of civilian casualties from US military action risks turning this into a story of American intervention. Up to now, the democratic awakening has opened up the Arab world’s future because it has been undertaken by the Arab people, who now believe they have control over their own destiny. We should avoid actions that change that narrative.
Second, even if a no-fly zone can be implemented with minimum civilian casualties, we don’t know if it will save lives or tilt the playing field toward the rebels. Air power does give Qaddafi some advantages, but a no-fly zone might do little to stop his forces from attacking and murdering the opposition using other means if he chooses to ignore or abrogate the cease-fire. And beyond grounding Qaddafi’s air force, the NFZ would not erode his other substantial military advantages; indeed, as the conflict progressed, his tanks, artillery, sea power and better-armed infantry put rebel forces on the defensive.
Third, there is a danger that a no-fly zone will distract from other measures that could be just as effective. Financially strangling the regime by cutting off all sources of money from abroad, sharing real-time intelligence with the rebels, working with others to facilitate the flow of assistance to them while stopping the flow of pro-Qaddafi mercenaries into the country, if done in cooperation with the Arab League, all have as much or more promise with less risk than does the far more dramatic gesture of a no-fly zone.
Finally, the language of the UN resolution, while it forbids "foreign occupation," is so broadly worded that many argue it amounts to an open-ended declaration of war against Libya. As is usually the case with military action, it’s easy to make the argument for war with Libya and to begin hostilities; it’s impossible to know when or how the conflict will end.
Indeed, there is a worrying dimension to this intervention, in that it reflects a mindset that associates US foreign policy, whether alone or as part of an allied force, with heroic crusades to bring down the bad guys. But it is exactly that mindset that has done so much damage in the Middle East over the years and that has saddled us with the costly burdens of two ongoing wars in Muslim lands. And Washington’s support for military action in Libya, on avowedly humanitarian grounds, should call into question ever more sharply the cynical American acquiescence in brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain.
The democratic awakening in the Arab world presents the United States with an opportunity to put that past behind us. It offers us a chance to align our interests with democratic change and economic progress. It would be a tragedy if we allowed the intervention in Libya to distract us from these difficult and important challenges. We need to deal with longstanding allies like Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which continue to resist democratic reforms—and to help the Egyptian people consolidate democracy and create jobs and economic opportunity. The most productive role for America in the Middle East today is diplomatic and economic, not military.