The conflict in Libya continues to unfold, evolving day by day. Although the situation is fluid and unpredictable, the chorus of voices calling for the U.S. and Europe to intervene grow louder by the day. Indeed, the United States and United Kingdom are seriously contemplating a no-fly zone over Libya. Hans-Inge Langø provided an intelligent look at implementing a no-fly zone last week through the lens of the responsibility to protect doctrine. David Cloud of the Los Angeles Times provides a further examination of the logistics involved in implementing a no-fly zone. The narrative in popular commentary: a no-fly zone over Libya is possible, but very complex, and the efficacy is questionable.
The ability for the “international community” to intervene still rests with the United Nations; as NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen acknowledged, a no-fly zone will require authorization from the United Nations Security Council. Of course, this would require Russia and China to sign on, a prospect that is not looking good at the moment. And the Arab League seems poised to oppose any Western intervention. Based on current reports, it appears only the United States and United Kingdom have left all options on the table, including unilateral action. Some would take actions further: Senator Joe Lieberman has called for the United States to arm the rebels. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at least seems to understand many of the consequences involved in any military action.
But a main tenet missing from the major news outlets reports’ is whether or not the Libyan rebels would welcome a no-fly zone or Western intervention. This is an issue the Obama administration has yet to adequately address publicly. Perhaps it is because they have not been able to communicate properly with the rebel groups yet. That alone provides a sufficient reason to slow down and exercise patience before action.
A few quotes from Libyans on the ground over the past few days seem to indicate apprehension to Western involvement, especially the United States. The leadership body recently set up in Benghazi rejected military intervention. But this same leadership body acknowledges they are by no means a provisional government and are not in contact with any foreign governments. It is very difficult to justify any sort of aid, either in military force or arms sales, when the actor you are attempting to aid does not want your help. The benefits of such an action are sparse to non-existent and an argument for why this is in the interest of the Untied States falls apart.
And if they do call for military aid, the fact that the broadly defined anti-government movement in Libya—spread out across multiple regions and cities in the country—has no clear leader, organizing body, or command structure should give pause to any U.S. or European officials calling for intervention or aiming to make a quick decision. If the most basic facts on the ground are unknown by policymakers—who the involvement is on behalf of or what the consequences may be—how can anyone possibly make an informed decision? And if the rebels do not want our assistance, what is the rationale to provide it? Arming rebels, as Senator Lieberman suggests, without knowing their situation or allegiance, could be a recipe for disaster in the short-run or long-run.
Any military action by the United States must still be based on whether or not it is in the interest of U.S. national security. It is difficult to argue how or why a North African country’s civil war directly impacts America’s interests or national security. The benefits of intervention are not entirely clear, especially any unilateral action. And it does not appear that policymakers want to engage in a serious discussion of what the actual benefits might be, at least publicly . The common thought among the foreign policy establishment is that something must be done in any international crisis; the United States must intervene in some manner when it is able to. Our massive military and ability to project power gives us the capacity to intervene. Therefore, we must intervene.
Doing “something” should not move beyond the implemented sanctions without weighing each option’s consequences—seen and unseen; intended and unintended—thoroughly. Is the situation on the ground so disastrous that the West should step in and risk backlash from the citizens of the Arab world? Would just one U.S. pilot getting shot down be worth the benefits of a no-fly zone? Is it worth agitating regional states—Turkey, Saudi Arabia—and further destabilizing others—Yemen and Bahrain?
And at the very least, intervention should require a UN resolution and assurance that the United States will not shoulder the majority of the burden. A clear exit plan should also be in place. It would be far too easy, as has happened in the past, for yet another foreign involvement to spiral into a never-ending peacekeeping mission. Parameters must be set that limit the extent of the involvement should the situation on the ground become worse. Once Colonel Gaddafi’s air power is negated, he may resort to large scale atrocities on the ground. Should outside actors then step in to enforce a “no-drive zone?” These are difficult questions that require complex answers. And the answers are never guaranteed to be correct.
Perhaps it is finally time for the United States to recognize that it is best for local powers in the region to answer these questions that involve their legitimate security concerns. In the end, given the lack of uncertainty about the future of Libya and the makeup of the Middle East, and the efficacy of these military options, it is entirely possible the United States may gain more influence by sticking to the margins and acting within the consensus of regional powers. The option at the other end of the spectrum, unilateral intervention, certainly did not fare well in Iraq and did little to help our image or influence in the Middle East. It highly unlikely that option would prove more successful now.