I have not been one of those castigating President Obama for decreasing American power—either deliberately or inadvertently. His muscular policy in Afghanistan, for example, belies this charge. But there is no question that his weak, vacillating response to the slaughter now unfolding in Libya will reduce American power and prestige in ways that will do us incalculable long-term harm.
On March 3, President Obama said that "Colonel Gadhafi needs to step down from power and leave. That is good for his country. It is good for his people. It's the right thing to do."
When the president of the United States publicly proclaims that the head of another state needs to "step down," his words carry considerable weight—or at least they should. Yet what has Mr. Obama done to back up his rhetoric? Not much beyond saying that "no option" is "off the table" and that he is actively "consulting" with American allies about how to act. At the rate those consultations are going, Gadhafi will have snuffed out the rebellion by the time that Mr. Obama decides on a course of action.
A month has now elapsed since the revolt began on Feb. 15. At first, Gadhafi appeared to be on the way out as rebels seized much of eastern Libya and many officials of Gadhafi's own government defected to their cause. But since then, employing his own troops and foreign mercenaries, Gadhafi has mounted an effective counteroffensive. Not only has he secured the capital, Tripoli, but he has begun to drive the rebels back, recapturing several towns along the Mediterranean coast. At this rate, he could be in Benghazi—Libya's second city, which the rebels captured early—within days.
Some policy makers in Washington may be fine with this outcome, because in 2003 Gadhafi gave up his weapons of mass destruction and his support for terrorism. But make no mistake: A resurgent Gadhafi would be a catastrophe on many levels.
Most obvious is the human cost of this dictator continuing his 41-year reign: His throne rests on an ever-growing pile of corpses. But there is also the strategic cost. Given the way the U.S. and our allies have turned against Gadhafi, at least rhetorically, he could easily decide to seek revenge by returning to his old tricks. Considering that Gadhafi was responsible for the midair bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, among many other acts of terror, that is no idle threat.
Moreover, if he is able to keep power by force, it will encourage other Middle Eastern despots to emulate his example. Already the Saudis have sent an armored column to quell protests in Bahrain. Expect more of the same if Gadhafi clings to power. The Arab Spring could easily turn into a very dark winter that will arrest and reverse the momentum of recent pro-democracy demonstrations. That means consigning the entire region to a dysfunctional status quo ante in which the long-term winners will be al Qaeda and their ilk.
It's not too late to prevent this dire outcome. All that would be required is for Mr. Obama to show as much political courage as France and the Arab League. Neither is known for its principled support of freedom, but both have called for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. The Pentagon, from Defense Secretary Robert Gates on down, has reacted as if this would be a military operation on the order of D-Day. In reality, it would not be hard to ground Gadhafi's decrepit air force.
The job could probably be performed with just one American ship—the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, now in the Red Sea, which has 34 F/A-18F Super Hornets and 10 F/A-18C Hornets along with a full complement of electronic-warfare aircraft. The Enterprise strike group could also unleash a devastating array of Tomahawk cruise missiles.
And the Enterprise would not have to fight alone. It could easily be joined by numerous American, British and French aircraft flying out of Aviano and other NATO bases in Italy. A forward operations base could be established at the Gamal Abdul el-Nasser airfield, one of Libya's major air force bases (built by the British), which is located south of Tobruk and has already been captured by the rebels.
As the enforcement of no-fly zones over Bosnia and Iraq should have proved, the risks of such an operation are minimal—especially if we first neutralize Gadhafi's air defenses.
By itself, a no-fly zone might not be enough to topple Gadhafi. At the very least, however, it would dishearten Gadhafi's supporters and buy time for the rebels. We could further tilt the balance in their favor by bombing Gadhafi's installations and troops.
It may also be necessary to send arms and Special Forces trainers to support the rebels. Without committing any combat troops of our own, we could deliver the same kind of potent combined-arms punch that drove the Serbs out of Kosovo when NATO aircraft supported ground operations by the Kosovo Liberation Army.
The Libyan opposition movement, led by Gadhafi's former justice minister, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, has been desperately asking for international aid in the form of a no-fly zone. If we finally delivered, you can bet that he and other Libyans would be grateful. Kosovo's capital, Pristina, today has a major thoroughfare named Bill Clinton Boulevard crowned with a 10-foot statue of their savior.
It is not far-fetched to imagine a Barack Obama Boulevard in Tripoli if the president finally finds the courage to act. If he does not, you can bet that his name and that of the country he leads will be reviled by democrats across the region—not only in Libya.
Mr. Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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