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Mounting Debate over Libya Options

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
March 7, 2011


Troops allied with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi slammed opposition forces with an air and ground attack, bringing Libya closer to civil war (FT) as rebel leaders vowed to regroup and said they will bring in heavy weapons (MSNBC). Qaddafi loyalists pushed back rebel efforts (WashPost) to advance toward Tripoli and regained the rebel-held town of Bin Jawad, reportedly dashing hopes of a quick end to Qaddafi's forty-one years in power. However, one report suggests that Qaddafi proposed to relinquish power (Ynet) in exchange for safety for himself and his family and guarantees of no future prosecution.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a special envoy to Libya to consult with officials on the spiraling violence and continuing human rights abuses (WSJ). According to the UN, nearly two hundred thousand refugees have fled the violence, a number that is expected to double. Talking with Fareed Zakaria on Sunday, Benjamin Barber, a fellow at the New York-based Demos think tank who worked closely with the Qaddafi Foundation, predicted a prolonged conflict (CNN) in which Qaddafi will "fight to the death."

Over the weekend, debate intensified in the United States and abroad over whether and how to support Libyan rebels. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry (D-MA), Senator John McCain (R-AZ), and others in Congress expressed support for a no-fly zone. On Face the Nation, Kerry promoted a no-fly zone (VOA) in the context of "international agreement and sanction." Kerry stressed that he didn't see a no-fly zone as a military intervention. "We don't want troops on the ground; they don't want troops on the ground. That would be counterproductive," Kerry said. In an interview with Christiane Amanpour on This Week, McCain called Qaddafi "insane" and urged the imposition of a no-fly zone, beginning with an attack on Libya to destroy its air defenses.

Some experts agree with those advocating a no-fly zone. In the Independent, Geoffrey Robertson says using NATO forces to stop the murder of innocents in Libya is lawful. Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowksi has also urged the United States to prepare military options. But with the United States pulling out of Iraq and still engaged in Afghanistan after almost ten years, there appears to be limited appetite in the Obama administration for military engagement. White House Chief of Staff William Daley said on Meet the Press (Fox) on March 6 that most of those pushing a no-fly zone "have no idea what they're talking about."

President Barack Obama has called for Qaddafi to leave, and in a statement last week emphasized that military options remain on the table (NYT).

However, many in his administration are reluctant to impose a no-fly zone. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (ABC) has said that while it's possible to impose a no-fly zone, the risks are so high that it would require striking inside Libya first to disable anti-aircraft capabilities. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee (LAT) the United States is cautious about sending troops to Libya because it wants to avoid perceptions that it's doing so for oil. General James Mattis, the head of United States Central Command, has stressed that a no-fly zone in Libya would be "challenging" (Reuters) and would first require an attack on Libyan air defenses, including ground-to-air missiles.

Additional Analysis:

If Obama decides that a Qaddafi victory would be intolerable, he should consider dusting off the plan that routed the Taliban from Afghanistan in late 2001, writes Robert Haddick on

This Council Special Report by CFR's Matthew Waxman recommends steps the United States could take to improve the international legal system governing the use of force in atrocities.

Oil price shocks spurred by Mideast events are unlikely to derail the U.S. economic recovery, says CFR Distinguished Visiting Fellow Michael Spence. But bigger shifts in the global economy will hit U.S. unemployment, income inequality, and capital costs, he says.

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