On Saturday the Arab League unanimously called for a no-fly zone over Libya, adding its voice to that of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The no-fly zone will have to come soon unless it will serve mostly to protect the corpses of Libyan opposition fighters. In the last few days, Gaddafi’s forces have reversed the earlier opposition momentum and are using their superior fire power, including air power, to wipe out opposition gains. Unless stopped, in the coming weeks they will wipe out the opposition.
This situation calls for actions that display American leadership, but the president appears to believe that his words have an almost magical power. He has called for Gaddafi to leave; isn’t that enough? "We are slowly tightening the noose," the president said on March 11, despite all evidence to the contrary. Actual leadership has been avoided and Secretary Clinton has in fact said we wish to avoid it. "I think it’s very important that this not be a U.S.-led effort," she explained on March 9th.
What explains this gap between Gaddafi gains on the ground, and the administration’s continuing inaction and claims of progress?
I can think of only two explanations. First, the president continues to believe that our support for any cause taints it. The best example is his defense of his failure to support the Green Movement in Iran after the June 2009 elections were stolen, on the ground that we might weaken the movement by associating ourselves with it. Similar views were expressed when Egyptians began to rise up against Mubarak. This strikes me as a product of very old, discredited views on the American left, which has long argued that America is hated all over the world, that our intervention only worsens things, and that the use of American power makes the world a worse place. The president contradicted these views in his Nobel lecture, but they seem still to animate U.S. policy.
Second, the president seems unwilling to challenge the unpersuasive and unexplained assertions of the top military officials that such a no-fly zone would be a huge strain on American resources. But there is another view: “This is a pretty easy problem, for crying out loud," said the former chief of staff of the Air Force, Gen. Merrill McPeak. “I can’t imagine an easier military problem. If we can’t impose a no-fly zone over a not even third-rate military power like Libya, then we ought to take a hell of a lot of our military budget and spend it on something usable....Just flying a few jets across the top of the friendlies would probably be enough to ground the Libyan Air Force, which is the objective....If we can’t do this, what can we do?"
The president appears to be relying on Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen, who oppose action, without reaching out for any alternative views-- such as might be provided not only by McPeak but by his predecessors and successors in the USAF. Other advisers might be asked to spell out what happens if Gaddafi wins -- beats the United States, one might say. The human toll will predictably be enormous, as revenge is taken and future revolts are made impossible. (In fact it is worth reminding the President that the human toll may be so great that he feels intervention is unavoidable. But that intervention will come later and be more difficult, and the failure to prevent mass killing would rightly be laid at his door.) It is plausible to see the Gaddafi regime, which would be clinging to power after Europe, the United States, and the Arab League had turned against it, seeking support from rogue regimes like Venezuela, North Korea, or Iran, engaging again in terrorism, and once again building a nuclear weapons program. Certainly the lesson for other regimes would be that mass violence against your own population pays: don’t compromise, don’t leave, just shoot.
Recently the administration said we were attempting to measure international support for action on Libya. Such questions have been answered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League, but in any event that was the wrong question. The role of the United States is to marshal international support, not measure it. That support is far more likely to be there if we say we have made a decision than if we just say "gee, we don’t know what to think, what do you guys think?" The president spoke with powerful imagery of a "noose" around Gaddafi, but a noose is a physical object, not constructed out of words. It is time for the president to give meaning to the policy he says we have adopted, and substitute action for resolutions, speeches, and press conferences. Or as it was once so memorably put, let’s roll.