More on a Military Intervention in Libya

To be clearer about what I had in mind when I wrote yesterday that the U.S. should be preparing military options for Libya, I think the no-fly zone is a red herring. It’s essentially shorthand for, “Do something, but make sure it’s sanitized so there are no messy consequences.” The problem is that it won’t be sanitized, and it’s unlikely to have a significant impact. It also requires an ongoing operation and commitment of resources.

If we are going to make that kind of extended commitment, it should be in terms of logistical support — humanitarian, organizational and military — to the rebellion in the east of the country. Clearly the humanitarian support comes first, with the organizational and military support being dependent on identifying reliable interlocutors among the rebellion. That also assumes those interlocutors will want our support, something that is not yet certain.

What I had in mind in terms of military intervention was a rapid and brief series of air strikes to destroy Libya’s air force, including the more problematic attack helicopters, on the ground. Here’s John McCreary:

Why would anyone attack air defenses when he can destroy the entire Libyan air force on the ground and its fuel storage tanks and ammunition depots in a single well-planned stealth attack at night?

. . .

This comment is not a policy recommendation. It is a blinding flash of the obvious. If international law is to be violated, it seems pointless to not do it at lowest cost and the right target: destruction on the ground of attack helicopters and ground attack aircraft.

With regard to the international law aspect, this is clearly not the sort of option that lends itself to U.N. Security Council resolutions, since the kind of sweeping use-of-force mandate it would require is a distant prospect, if one at all. For that reason, NATO and the EU are off the table as well. That means this would be a U.S. operation. But given the optics of a one-off strike, as opposed to an extended mission, I’d be willling to live with that, even in a post-Iraq landscape that magnifies the toxic effects of U.S. unilateralism.

As for U.N.-sanctioned military measures, instead of a no-fly zone, I’d be pushing for a demilitarized zone located somewhere between Tripoli and Benghazi, through which neither side’s forces might transit. That mission could be a U.N. peacekeeping operation, with a joint AU-EU force structure. Such a cordon sanitaire would allow for the rebellion to crystallize a political identity and better lend itself to a negotiated exit for Moammar Gadhafi.

A final caveat: All of the above is where I would begin, taking into consideration the advice and opinion of Libya experts and military operational planners. I am instinctively hostile to military options, and I recognize very clearly that even a supposedly one-off air raid can have unexpected consequences. Similarly, creating an enforced stand-off between the two sides could prolong the conflict, leading to greater bloodshed. Those are risks that need to be accounted for, but there are also risks to inaction.

Finally, I am a big supporter of the Obama administration’s emphasis on a consensus- and rules-based international order and recognize how crucial U.S. restraint and humility are for the emergence of that order. But while there will certainly be short-term political costs to a unilateral U.S. action, in the scheme of things, Gadhafi and his armed forces represent a minor military obstacle, with very clear humanitarian and structural upsides to enforcing the international rule sets he is violating right now.

I don’t for a second dismiss all the many valid arguments against the above approach, and remain open to considering additional ones. But for me, this is where the debate stands for now.

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