Rushing Carefully in Libya

The Administration Needs to Consider All Its Options

John Norris urges the Obama administration to proceed with caution as it’s pressed to intervene in Libya.

A defected Libyan soldier sits with his weapons on the outskirts of the eastern town of Brega, Libya, on March 4, 2011. (AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill)
A defected Libyan soldier sits with his weapons on the outskirts of the eastern town of Brega, Libya, on March 4, 2011. (AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

Over the weekend the Obama administration was greeted by a chorus of commentators urging the United States to respond militarily to the situation in Libya. But the choices now facing the administration are complex and demand both speed of response and common sense.

The negative scenarios are easily sketched out. The administration does not want a failed state, a protracted civil war, a major disruption in oil supplies, a humanitarian catastrophe, or to look feckless at a moment of great import. Nor does it want to make the hopefully democratic transitions across other parts of the Middle East more daunting.

In foreign policy, however, it is always easy to sketch out what you don’t want to happen. Putting a positive agenda on the table is much trickier business. This explains why President Barack Obama’s National Security Council staff has been pulling some very late nights.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves. Blowing up a runway or imposing a no-fly zone are not silver bullets. And one would hope that after the experience of both Afghanistan and Iraq—and earlier interventions such as Kosovo and Bosnia—we understand that war is a dangerous, uncertain business. This is not to minimize the brutality of Moammar Qaddafi’s attacks on his own people or to urge inaction. It is to counsel thoughtful action designed with an endgame firmly in mind.

Consider the following questions. If we arm the opposition, what happens if some of those weapons fall into unfriendly hands? Do we really think that the situation in the Middle East requires more weapons on the ground? Or what if we impose a no-fly zone and attacks on the ground continue or escalate? Do we consider resorting to a ground offensive? Do we want the United States involved in three ground wars in three Islamic countries at the same time? Neither the rebels nor our national interest would benefit from a half-hearted intervention that does not achieve its goals.

With this in mind, here are the things that the administration should do right now. Fortunately, they appear to be trying to work through them already:

  • Leave all options on the table. We should not immediately commit to the use of force. But we shouldn’t take it off the table, either. There are scores of options beyond a no-fly zone or arming the rebels that might be appropriate—from jamming Libya’s communications system to making clear to Libya that any further aerial attacks will mean significant parts of its air force will be destroyed on the ground. The president needs to take a hard look at the full range of options available and creatively employ the best mix likely to achieve the best results.
  • Quickly build a consensus with other nations. It is imperative that the United States find common cause with other nations about the best course of action. This might be through the United Nations, NATO, the African Union, the Arab League, or the European Union—or some combination of any of the above. There needs to be a broader umbrella of states that are vested in the outcome beyond the United States.
  • Explain the course of action. President Obama, in consultation with Congress, needs to make a clear and compelling case to the American public about what he believes to be the best option before using military force or ruling it out. He needs to articulate the potential risks and rewards of this strategy, and how this is tied to our fundamental interests as a nation and a people. We would far prefer a president who is brutally honest about the hard choices ahead than one who blithely paints a rosy scenario that evaporates in the hot desert sun.
  • Keep trying to peel away Qaddafi’s inner circle. Through every channel possible—the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA, and beyond—the administration needs to get the message to Qaddafi’s coterie that they are on the wrong side of history and that the only way to potentially save themselves is to get out now. Further defections will further rattle the regime and help restore some of the momentum robbed from the rebels as they are bombarded with air strikes and attacks from a mad—and power mad—government.

Given Qaddafi’s instability and absolute irresponsibility there is a chance that his forces will commit some atrocity that is so far beyond the pale—bombing a grade school or hospital, openly gunning down scores of unarmed protestors in front of an television crew—that the administration will feel that it has no choice but to act immediately regardless of the state of its planning. Let’s hope the rebels and their supporters in the outside world can find common cause and some practical plans before that happens.

John Norris is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative. The Center for American Progress will continue to monitor the crisis in Libya and offer recommendations as the situation develops.

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John Norris

Senior Fellow; Executive Director, Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative