War Stories

No-Rush Zone

Why Obama is taking his time deciding what to do about Libya.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Libya conflict.

War in Libya. Click image to expand.
Rebel fighters near Ras Lanuf, Libya

Is President Obama dithering over Libya?

In the past week or so, a diverse array of commentators—Republican hawks, the usual neocons, and some normally gun-shy Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry—has called on Obama to take action now. Some have charged Obama with queasiness or lack of principles for not charging the ramparts from the get-go. But one can imagine several very good reasons for the president’s … let’s call it caution.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have been outspokenly leery of military options. Some scoff at their hesitation, and it is true that, for the past 40 years, U.S. military leaders have tended, more than many of their civilian bosses, to warn of war’s risks. The thing is, they often do know what they’re talking about.

Take the most popular proposal on the table, the imposition of a no-fly zone over at least parts of Libya, to prevent Moammar Qaddafi’s pilots from bombing or strafing the rebels fighting for his overthrow. As Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the JCS chairman, have said, a no-fly zone is no small matter. It is, for one thing, an act of war and therefore prompts the question: Do you really want to get into this? Do you want to get into another war in another Muslim country in the Middle East?

Leon Wieseltier recently wrote in the New Republic, “I do not see a Middle East rising up in anger at the prospect of American intervention.” Oh, really. Where did we last see that degree of blitheness?

But let’s say Obama was fine with taking the risk, assuring the nation and the world that he wouldn’t fall into the escalation trap—that he’d order U.S. fighter planes in the area (an air base in Italy, an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean) to enforce a no-fly zone and go no further. There would still be some things to figure out. For instance: How much of Libya do you want to restrict? (All of it? Just the Mediterranean coastal area? Just the eastern territories?) What are the rules of engagement? (Do we shoot down all aircraft that enter the zone, fixed-wing and helicopters? What if a Libyan pilot fires back? Do we destroy their air defenses ahead of time or just when they turn on their radar? If Qaddafi’s planes keep flying, do we bomb his runways? If the planes are down but Qaddafi sends in tanks, do we bomb their tanks?) Will other nations send their planes, too, or just their blessings, if that? How long do you want to keep this up?

These questions, and many more, have to be answered before the military can even begin to plan a campaign.

But even before any of these questions can be asked, there’s a more basic question still: What is the desired goal of this action? Is it to pressure Qaddafi to stand down? Is it to provide air cover to the rebels, so they can fight Qaddafi’s ground forces on more equal footing? Whatever the goal, if the no-fly zone doesn’t get us there, should we try other means? And if not, why not? As Clausewitz wrote, war is politics by other means. War is fought for a political objective. If that objective is important enough to justify one form of military intervention, why not another form? What is the goal? How far are you willing to go to accomplish the goal? How important is the goal?

These issues take a while to sort out, especially if you’re not Leon Wieseltier or you think that it might be a good idea to go into this conflict as part of a group—that is, with a patina of international legitimacy. That way, it wouldn’t look like the Americans were just trying to take over Libya’s oil (Qaddafi is far from the only person who would suspect as much), and if things were to go badly, we could spread the risk. A U.N. Security Council resolution would be nice. If that’s not possible (due to the prospect of a Russian or Chinese veto), an alliance with the Arab League, even if just in name, might be better.

This concern, by the way, has nothing to do with legal niceties or mamby-pamby multilateralism. It stems from deep pragmatism. Moral justification is a poor excuse for doing something badly. Or, as Andrew Exum (one of the smartest military bloggers out there, a former Ranger special-ops officer and fluent Arabic speaker besides) put it: “If you are morally justified to intervene but do so incompetently, the incompetence itself amounts to immoral behavior.”

The United States did successfully enforce two no-fly zones in Iraq for 12 years, between the 1991 cease-fire following Desert Storm and the 2003 invasion of Baghdad. But that was an elaborate business, involving more than 200 airplanes patrolling the skies—160 in the south to protect the Shia, about 50 in the north to protect the Kurds. Also, as Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy points out, the Clinton administration kept a unit of special-operations forces on the ground in northern Iraq—and, after Saddam started attacking Shia on the ground, tacked on a no-drive zone in the south.

A no-fly zone over Libya might not have to be as complex as the one over Iraq. Since most of the fighting is going on near or around the northern coastal towns and cities, the zone itself could be smaller. Qaddafi’s air force is also smaller, and less capable, than Saddam’s was. Another intriguing possibility: Defense analysts James Thomas and Zachary Cooper propose in today’s Wall Street Journal that the United States enforce a no-fly zone with long-range air-to-air missiles, which could be fired from planes patrolling the waters outside Libyan airspace (and thus beyond the reach of Libya’s surface-to-air missiles).

There are other possible military options. (Who knows, Obama may have ordered some of these already.) We could provide rebel forces with intelligence, supplies, small arms, maybe a handful of special-ops advisers—though this list should be regarded as an increasingly risky progression. The weapons that the CIA supplied to the anti-Soviet mujahedeen, for instance, wound up in enemy camps, as did, for that matter, many of the mujahedeen.

Which, of course, leads to another question: Who are these rebels? Mahmoud Jibril, of the Libyan rebels’ Interim Transitional National Council, is appealing for aid from European countries. But who is to say whether he or this group really represents a lot of Libyans or their aspirations? He and other rebels admit that they have no experience with politics; Qaddafi’s iron-grip rule of four decades has (deliberately) assured that. If they do overthrow Qaddafi with our help, will they also want—or require—our help in setting up a political system or a civil society? Doubtful. Whose help will they attract? That’s a worry.

There may be—there probably is—a good way to help the rebels militarily. The United States does not have vital interests in Libya; that’s usually a solid argument for staying out of trouble. But we might well have aninterest in demonstrating that we can, and will, help brutalized people in that part of the world. Other countries, such as Britain and Italy, have more tangible interests still. It may be that the Obama administration has spent some time these past two weeks persuading them to do something, too.

But if they’re smart, Obama and his aides have spent most of the time figuring out, first, what they want to see happen, and only then, whether the United States has any leverage to help that come about, and only then, what’s the best—or the most feasible—course of action.