The Obama administration deserves a lot of credit, so far, for its forbearance over Libya. As it did with Egypt, refusing to move aggressively against Mubarak while making it clear that the United States wanted him to quit, in Libya the United States has essentially rejected a no-fly zone, stayed away from threats of military attack against Qaddafi’s positions, and hasn’t moved too fast to recognize or provide aid to the Libyan rebels.
In Egypt, the Obama administration was attacked from the left (and by neoconservatives), who charged that the United States was trying to shore up the US-Egyptian alliance. In Libya, the administration is under fire mostly from the right, from the likes of John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard, and from liberal interventionists, such as the editorial writers for the Washington Post, who vilify Obama for giving Qaddafi a free pass. The truth is that, in both cases, the Obama administration has carefully navigated a very difficult situation, trying above all not to make it appear as if the region-wide Arab revolt is orchestrated by Washington.
That hasn’t stopped various leaders, from Mubarak to Qaddafi to Yemen’s President Saleh, from accusing the United States, the UK and Israel—as well as Al Qaeda—of covertly controlling the revolt.
But here’s an important quote, from the Times, by an Obama administration official that seems to make it clear that they understand why the United States has to approach the Arab revolt cautiously:
“There’s a great temptation to stand up and say, ‘We’ll help you rid the country of a dictator.’ But the president has been clear that what’s sweeping across the Middle East is organic to the region, and as soon as we become a military player, we’re at risk of falling into the old trap that Americans are stage-managing events for their own benefit.”
Exactly right. So what can the United States do, in the case of Libya? A very bad option is to impose a no-fly zone, as I argued last week. Let us count the reasons. It won’t be decisive, since most of the fighting will be on the ground. It will look, to all the world, especially to the Arabs, like yet another US attack on an Arab country. It will be extremely cumbersome and difficult to maintain, and its implementation, including bombing runs against air defense systems in urban areas, will cause lot of casualties. It will be opposed by Russia, China and many Arab states, among others, so it will have to be done through NATO, unilaterally, not through the United Nations.
Neither the US military nor Secretary of Defense Gates are enthusiastic. Gates has spoken out most forcefully, reflecting the military’s opinion that a no-fly zone is a nonstarter and could backfire politically. Flanked by Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Cheifs, Gates warned against the fact that a no-fly zone in Libya would be perceived as America’s third war against a Muslim country. On Capitol Hill yesterday, Gates added:
“Let’s just call a spade a spade. 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.”
So far, Qaddafi has made only limited use of his air force in counterattacking rebels. Mostly, he’s used it to bomb arms depots before they could fall into rebel hands, although yesterday, during a battle between rebels and the loyalist army in Brega, a mid-country coastal town, the air force did drop bombs, with limited effectiveness. The rebels have captured and are using anti-aircraft systems, so they are not completely defenseless. And it remains to be seen if Qaddafi’s pilots will follow orders, since some have already defected.
The Arab League, based in Cairo and under the leadership of Amr Moussa, an establishment figure who has declared his intention to run for president in Egypt, has suggested that it might operate a no-fly zone in Libya, a far more preferable strategy to an American-led one. But it’s hard to imagine Arab air forces putting their aircraft under Arab League command, especially since the planes would come mostly from the gulf states and Jordan, who have their own rebel problems.