The administration is right to ratchet up the pressure on Colonel Qaddafi and his brutal regime. Talking of establishing a no-flight zone, repositioning American military assets around Libya, and letting it be known that the U.S. is dedicating intelligence assets to monitor Libyan government abuses — and document them for future criminal prosecutions — are all steps in the right direction. But actually taking military action is harder than it seems.
But administration officials can't dismiss the option of military intervention given what is at stake for the region. Take the idea of imposing a no-flight zone. NATO and the U.S. military have enforced such zones in the past, and Italy has suggested that it would make bases on its soil available for the mission. Planning to carry out such a mission is a logical step, as reports of Libyan warplanes bombing civilian areas continue to mount.
But, as General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, said at a Senate hearing, taking out Libyan air defenses, “wouldn’t be just telling people not to fly airplanes.” It would also imply risking American lives and possibly shooting down Libyan aircraft.
The effort is even tougher at the diplomatic level. The administration would surely prefer to proceed with any military action under a United Nations mandate, which would require Russian agreement. But Moscow has already rejected the idea of a U.N.-authorized no-flight zone. NATO could carry out the mission outside U.N. authorization, as it did during the Kosovo war, but France has said that such a mission could go forward only with U.N. approval — and it’s unclear where other members stand. So the United States might be stuck, unable to get U.N. or NATO authorization, witnessing continued aerial bombings, and having to choose between doing nothing or pulling together a coalition of the willing.
The answer, however, is not to simply dismiss any intervention as too hard. As they navigate this dilemma, administration officials should keep in mind two broad opportunities — or risks.
The first is the chance for the United States to fundamentally reorder its relations with key Arab states. For decades we chose alternatively between embracing friendly autocrats and trying to promote democracy; we now have the opportunity to support both the governments and the democratic movements in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps Libya.
The second is that the democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt have provided powerful examples for the rest of the Middle East and beyond. Libya, if it descends into chaos and civil war, could easily provide the counter-example.