Contemplating America’s Options in Libya

As Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi clings to power, the United States wonder what they can do to help the country’s rebels.

As Libya’s longtime ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi clings to power, confrontations between rebels and supporters of the regime grew evermore violent this week. Heavy clashes occurred in the western city of Az Zawiyah, some forty miles west of Tripoli, on Saturday while anti-government militias claimed control of Ra’s Lanuf, a hub of the Libyan oil and petrochemical industries on the Mediterranean coast.

In Zawiyah, the government deployed tanks against protesters but air attacks appeared to have been limited to strategic targets in the east of the country. Rebels have nevertheless called upon the West to enforce a no-fly zone to allow them to advance on the capital where Gaddafi remained in power.

A notable supporter of American involvement is Arizona Senator John McCain who told ABC’s This Week on Sunday that his country “can’t risk allowing Gaddafi to massacre people from the air, both by helicopter and fixed-wing [aircraft].”

McCain favored enforcing a no-fly zone last week, suggesting that America should arm rebels and supply them with humanitarian assistance. He told Meet the Press that he wasn’t “ready to use ground forces” at the time, noting that the United States should make clear that “anyone who continues or is engaged in these kinds of barbarous acts is going to find themselves on trial in a war crimes tribunal.”

The International Criminal Court in The Hague launched an investigation this week but it hadn’t deterred Gaddafi from deploying military force against his antagonists.

Democrat John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rejected outright military intervention but didn’t believe enforcing a no-fly zone would amount to that. He suggested on CBS’ Face the Nation that America “crater the airports and the runways and leave them incapable of using them for a period of time.”

The United States military has been hesitant however with defense secretary Robert Gates warning Congress on Wednesday that “a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses.” He added that the navy would have to field more than the single aircraft carrier currently near Libyan waters to effectively mount such an operation.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that reports of Gaddafi deploying air force against his own people had not been confirmed. McCain responded to that remark on Friday, telling reporters that he assumed the Pentagon was “not completely up to speed.”

On This Week, the former Republican presidential contender argued that the “air assets that Gaddafi has are not overwhelming.” The Libyan air force consists of mostly Soviet era ground attack and bomber craft, only some of which are believed to be flyable.

Enforcing a no-fly zone and supporting a provisional government in the east of the country would send a powerful message to the regime that its days are numbered, said McCain. Gaddafi himself may be “insane,” he admitted, “but perhaps the people around him would begin to depart the sinking ship.”

Already senior members of the regime, including ministers and ambassadors, have publicly disavowed the colonel to side with the rebels. While Gaddafi appears cornered, “he obviously remains lethal,” said Kerry.

Both senators opposed putting American soldiers on the ground in Libya. “Ground intervention would not be appropriate,” according to McCain and could be counterproductive. Kerry agreed. “We don’t want troops on the ground. [The rebels] don’t want troops on the ground.”