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Think Again: Libya

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
April 28, 2011
Foreign Policy

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When the United States and its allies went to war in Libya five and a half weeks ago, it wasn't supposed to be much of a war at all. U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to intervene was based on the assumption that nearby states more directly impacted by the state of affairs in Libya, such as Britain and France, would lead the charge. The United States, according to Obama, would lead with "days, not weeks" of military action, thus "shaping the conditions for the international community to act together." Many in Washington, though aware that the United States has unique capabilities essential to early stages of no-fly zone implementation, assumed it would be easy to pass the buck. As vocal intervention proponent Sen. Lindsay Graham would later concede, "When we call[ed] for a no-fly zone, we didn't mean our planes."

Much of this assumption had to do with the Arab League. On March 12, the regional organization threw its weight behind the Libyan revolution, denouncing "the fatal violations and serious crimes at the hands of Libyan authorities" and calling on the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over the country. "The main priority right now is to stop the deadly situation," Secretary-General Amr Moussa said at the time. U.S. officials highlighted the league's March 12 resolution as an endorsement of action from the region; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to "a sense of urgency that was precipitated by the Arab League's courageous stand."

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