Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Washington’s Options on Libya



Published: March 8, 2011

President Obama was talking tough again on Monday, warning that the West is considering all options, including military intervention. Just a day before, his chief of staff, William Daley, complained that “lots of people throw around phrases like no-fly zone; they talk about it as though it’s just a video game.” A few days earlier, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said a no-fly zone could require a huge, prolonged operation, an argument challenged by some military planners.

We are not eager to see the United States involved in another conflict in the Muslim world. Sending in American troops would be a disaster. But some way must be found to support Libya’s uprising and stop Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from slaughtering his people. On Tuesday, his forces appeared to be gaining momentum as they again turned warplanes against the opposition.

Even with overwhelming air superiority, preventing Libyan warplanes from flying would entail some risk for American and NATO pilots. And what happens if Colonel Qaddafi holds on? Will the United States and its allies continue to patrol the skies?

When the United States, Britain and France imposed an air cap over Iraq after the 1991 gulf war, they grounded airplanes and helicopters and stopped the massacres of Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. It went on for 12 years.

The United States must not act on its own. As Mr. Obama and his team weigh the military options, they also need to be working diplomatic channels hard to see if they can rally a strong international endorsement.

Britain and France are drafting a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a no-flight zone. Whether it can pass is unclear. Russia said it opposes military action; China has been cool to the proposal.

NATO is consulting all week on Libya, with defense ministers planning to meet in Brussels on Thursday. Turkey and some other allies are balking at a no-flight zone.

A credible endorsement from the Arab world seems absolutely essential. For too long Arab leaders have privately urged the United States to act — against Saddam Hussein, against Iran — while denouncing American action in public.

On Monday, the Gulf Cooperation Council demanded that the Security Council impose a no-flight zone. Arab League foreign ministers should follow suit when they meet in an emergency session on Saturday. Egypt and some other member states have the military resources to participate.

There is more that the United States and its allies can do right now. NATO has expanded its air surveillance over Libya from 10 hours to 24 hours a day to gather information on Libyan troop movements. It should find a way to share relevant information with the rebels. Without firing a shot, it can sow confusion among Libyan forces by jamming their communications. All of the big states need to agree on ways to enforce the United Nations-imposed arms embargo.

The United States and its partners have taken important steps to pressure Colonel Qaddafi and his cronies to cede power, including an assets freeze and a travel ban. We doubt that Colonel Qaddafi will ever get the message. But with enough pressure, his cronies and his military might abandon him — to save their own skins.

The courageous protesters who overthrew Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia have inspired the world and left autocrats fearful — just look at China. It would be a disaster if Colonel Qaddafi managed to cling to power by butchering his own people.

A version of this editorial appeared in print on March 9, 2011, on page A26 of the New York edition.

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