March 18, 2011 — President Obama’s speech about the coming no-fly zone over Libya raised more new questions than it answered. Obama was adamant that the United States would not act alone in targeting forces loyal to Libyan strongman Muammer el-Qaddafi, and he flatly ruled out the use of American ground troops. But the president did not reiterate his earlier demand that Qaddafi step down, and he indicated that U.S. military forces would be used exclusively to protect Libyan civilians, and not to force Qaddafi – who has vowed to fight to the death – out of power.
Thousands of miles away from Washington, events are taking on their own momentum. Britain rushed warplanes and other military assets to bases near Libya, and French officials signaled that initial bombing sorties and missile strikes could begin this weekend. The Obama administration will soon be forced to address issues it has long avoided. Below are four important questions hanging over the coming Western-led military operations in the skies above Libya.
1-Is the United States Still the Indispensable Nation? In both Iraq and Yugoslavia, the U.S. military took the lead in enforcing no-fly zones and taking other actions to protect civilians on the ground. This time around, Obama went out of his way to say that the Pentagon will merely be “enabling” European and Arab nations to enforce a no-fly zone, likely by deploying drones and AWACs surveillance aircraft to the region. Other countries are already going significantly further: Earlier on Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that the U.K. had begun to deploy fighters, surveillance aircraft, and refueling planes to bases near Libya; France moved additional Mirage fighter jets to its military facilities on the Mediterranean coast and said that initial strikes could begin within hours. The tiny oil-rich state of Qatar said it would provide unspecified assistance to the growing international effort to isolate Qaddafi and protect the rebel-held territory in eastern Libya. American officials, meanwhile, confirmed that Egypt had begun providing rifles, ammunition, and other armaments to the insurgents fighting to hold off Qaddafi loyalists. Still, it is almost certain that U.S. warplanes will eventually need to strike Libyan targets, particularly if the Qaddafi regime abandons the cease-fire that it hastily announced after the U.N. vote.
2-Will It Be a No-Fly Zone or Something More? The initial draft resolutions of the United Nations Security Council seemed to be laying the groundwork solely for a no-fly zone akin to what U.S. fighters had imposed over Iraq and Kosovo. But the final resolution goes much further. It says that foreign militaries can “take all necessary measures” to protect civilians and major population centers. Robert Chesney, an expert on the law of war at the University of Texas, noted in a blog posting that the U.N. measure also allows the use of “air power against ground forces advancing on Benghazi” or other rebel-held territory. The U.S. and its allies, then, might not simply try to force Qaddafi’s attack helicopters and jet fighters out of the skies; they might also target his tanks, armored personnel carriers, and infantry. That, in turn, suggests that a Libyan no-fly zone could quickly turn into something far larger, and far more dangerous, for both sides.
3-When Will the Shooting Start? The Iraq war famously began with a “shock and awe” campaign over Baghdad in March 2003. The coming operations over Libya are likely to begin far more modestly. A senior U.S. Defense official said on Friday that the Pentagon expected French and, possibly, British warplanes to begin overflying Libyan territory on Saturday in a show of force intended to persuade Qaddafi that the West is serious about containing him. The official said that those flights could be followed by a limited number of cruise-missile strikes or bombing runs to destroy some Libyan radars and air-defense systems without causing many Libyan casualties. The United States is unlikely to take part in either initial phase of the campaign, but the official acknowledged that Pentagon planners are actively compiling target lists in case Obama orders the military to begin striking Qaddafi’s forces, aircraft, or military facilities.
4-What If Qaddafi Holds On? This would be the absolute worst-case scenario for the White House, which has continually lagged behind the French and British in calling for Qaddafi’s ouster and taking steps to engineer it. Both Paris and London have made clear that their ultimate goal is Qaddafi’s departure from Libya and that they are prepared to use force to push him out. Obama, by contrast, went out of his way on Friday to stress that the UN resolution was meant solely to protect Libyan civilians from further suffering. The president was conspicuously silent about whether his administration would accept Qaddafi's remaining in power over the western half of Libya as part of a fragile cease-fire with the rebel-held east. That outcome is unlikely to prove acceptable to either the rebels or the European and Arab nations that have taken unprecedented – by their standards – steps to oust Qaddafi. So, Obama may soon face a question similar to the one that confronted the President George H.W. Bush after the Persian Gulf War: Press the coming military campaign until an unpopular leader has been forced aside, or step back and allow a weakened but angry dictator to remain in power? Either path carries risks.
Andrew Exum, a former Ranger officer who is a counterinsurgency specialist at the Center for a New American Security, noted in a blog posting that the ultimate U.S. strategic goals remain unclear. “What happens if Qaddafi pulls back? Do we continue to try and press the advantage of the rebels until his government falls? Do we have the authorization to do that? Do we expect a civil war in Libya to drag out, and if so, how will we take sides? If Qaddafi falls, what comes next? What will the new Libyan government look like? Will they be friendly to U.S. interests? Someone please tell me how this ends,” he wrote. “It really does seem like we are going to go to war with another country in the Arabic-speaking world. Incredible. I should be thankful for the broad international coalition we have put together, and for the fact that a large ground invasion is unlikely, but I mainly just have a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach.”