Many Uncertainties About Libyan Intervention

While military operations over Libya have begun, many questions about the campaign are still waiting to be answered.

There is hardly an hour that goes by without a new development in the Libyan standoff. Newspapers, television shows and world governments have been boxed into an extremely tough position. The Obama Administration has been scrambling to forge a comprehensive policy to an otherwise evolving situation. Some people still aren’t exactly sure how the Libyan government will respond in the coming days. Every contingent is still open and military force by the international community has now become the official policy of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The Libya story is constantly changing, so it’s obviously difficult to track down exactly where we are at this moment, let alone what action Muammar al-Gaddafi will take to either prolong or end the stalemate in his country. Nevertheless, something significant has indeed happened. With a vote of ten to zero, the United Nations Security Council authorized the use of military force against Gaddafi’s regime in order to protect Libyan civilians. French warplanes and American cruise missiles fired the first shots, taking out some of Libya’s air defense systems along the Mediterranean coast this weekend.

With the United States voting in favor of the resolution, Washington once again committed itself to an intervention in the Muslim world — all at a time when American military resources are stretched thin and billions of dollars continue to be spent in Afghanistan and Iraq. So with the United States, Europe and the Arab states now intervening, here are some questions that should be considered as the military campaign grinds on.

Who will lead the operation? The Security Council resolution was passed by a number of countries, including Bosnia, France, Lebanon, Nigeria, Portugal, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have pledged to contribute fighter planes and/or other equipment to the effort. But who will actually fly the planes and bomb Gaddafi’s defenses?

A American-led operation would not sit well with Arabs, most of whom are still scarred by Washington’s stance vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iraq. Europe may be well suited to enforce the no-fly zone: France, Britain and Italy have far more to lose in Libya than the United States ever will.

What happens if Gaddafi capitulates? If he blinks and backs down, will the United Nations decide to scrap the no-fly zone? Ironically, this question seems to have already been answered, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not taking Gaddafi’s ceasefire announcement seriously. Yet a ceasefire would indicate that the core component of the UN resolution — the protection of civilians — has been met (at least temporarily). This appears to suggest that the United States and its allies may go a step further, perhaps by arming the opposition or bombing Gaddafi’s compounds.

Who are we dealing with? The Libyan opposition is a loose collection of untrained fighters from traditional anti-Gaddafi strongholds. There is no coherent or organized leadership passing down orders, nor is there a clear picture about what the opposition wants — besides the removal of their dictator. With the UN resolution now in affect, the international community has publicly endorsed the rebel side. Unfortunately, we have endorsed a bunch of people who may hold different interests for Libya if and when Gaddafi leaves or falls from power.

Will boots on the ground be necessary? We have to ask ourselves what the next step will be if the no-fly zone and bombing raids fail to persuade Gaddafi to five up fighting. As his history suggests, there is always the possibility that he and his loyalists will dig in and consolidate their authority through unconventional means.

One scenario is the movement of heavy weaponry and anti-aircraft guns into populated civilian areas, ensuring that any foreign strike will kill innocents in the process. It’s a terrible violation of the Geneva Convention, yet Gaddafi has demonstrated that he will pull out all the stops in order to survive. What happens then? Will the United States, Europe and the Arab world decide to increase the scope of their operation?

Is Obama’s team on the same page? There is cause for concern that the administration may not be unified on the president’s decision to use force. The National Security Council was divided during the entire deliberation process with Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power and Ambassador Susan Rice arguing for the intervention and defense secretary Robert Gates, Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon opposing involvement. Gates and Biden, two of the most powerful people in the administration, found themselves on the losing side but must now set aside their disagreements and work to support the president’s policy.