The United States’ Predicament in Libya

Despite complaints of the Obama Administration’s response to Libya, erring on the side of caution is the right game plan.

After more than a week of state orchestrated violence against Libyan protesters demanding an end to Muammar al-Gaddafi’s 42 year rule over of the country, the European Union and the United States are taking concrete action to address the crisis.

Up until the disclosure of an executive order of President Barack Obama’s, the White House was basically responding to the humanitarian crisis with a mix of official condemnations and a thorough campaign of backdoor international diplomacy with European and Arab partners — a mix that many human rights advocates and civil society organizations have labeled as a time consuming and worthless endeavor.

While harsh, those people have a point. Gaddafi has been flouting the international system and the most powerful country in the world for four consecutive decades. A series of statements expressing Washington’s displeasure about Gaddafi’s brutal response (killing civilians in cold blood with machine guns, planes and helicopters) would undoubtedly have little deterrent effect on the dictator. It is easy to forget that Gaddafi was a global pariah until eight years ago when his government decided to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for an end to American sanctions. So hoping that a man as odd and egocentric as “the leader of the Revolution” would change his stripes in such a short period of time would be a foolish thing to expect.

Despite these weaknesses, the Obama Administration’s response has been, and continues to be, an evolving mechanism catering to an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. The problem is that some both in and out of government do not seem to understand the gravity of the situation. It also happens to be quite difficult to take some of the recommendations made by these same critics seriously.

One recommendation that has been getting a lot of play over the past few days is the possibility of orchestrating a NATO or UN-led “no-fly zone” over Libyan airspace in order to protect Libyan protesters on the ground from air attacks.

More and more individuals and groups are beginning to personally endorse the no-fly zone approach. Over two hundred Arab civil society organizations have signed an open letter to the United Nations Security Council urging a similar proposal. Elliot Abrams, the Bush Administration’s top official for the Middle East on the National Security Council, has gone further. To Abrams, direct American military action may be required; the minimum of which should be the deployment of American warships off the Mediterranean coast if the situation further deteriorates.

However desirable all of these options may be, they are also politically suicidal.

It is difficult to believe that the United States Congress would accept unilateral American action in another Muslim country. The scars of the Iraq occupation are only just starting to heal after a long eight years of combat and American forces are still heavily engaged in an intense counterinsurgency battle against a Taliban enemy that is likely to strengthen as the weather in Afghanistan starts to get warmer.

America’s last true humanitarian intervention in a Muslim country, Somalia, did not turn out well, despite strong bipartisan support for a thorough American response. It is not unrealistic to predict that a similar situation could unfold in Libya, a state with hundreds of different tribes, clans and loyalties.

A no-fly zone would be great in theory but even turn this goodnatured action can turn into a question mark if the unexpected happens. For instance, what happens if an American or British plane gets shot down by anti-aircraft fire, or if a Libyan fighter jet decides to get into a dogfight with an allied plane? While not preordained, there is a very good chance that a downed aircraft would provoke harsh retaliation by the United States and their allies — something that Gaddafi could conveniently use to boost his claim that the entire protest movement is a Western conspiracy aimed at driving him from power.

There is no question that the White House’s response may have lagged, but in a scenario where facts on the ground change every hour, no one should have expected anything different.

The United States now has taken action through unilateral sanctions and a freezing of Gaddafi’s assets abroad. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also unequivocally asked Gaddafi to save his country by resigning. Now that American citizens have been evacuated, a freezing of diplomatic relations and wholehearted rhetorical and/or material support for the anti-government protests may also be in order.

Anything more than that could very well play into the hands of Gaddafi’s regime. Or, it could instigate an even wider conflict, granting Gaddafi’s clan an excuse to crack down even harder.