In the Wall Street Journal today, I have an op-ed headlined “It’s Not Too Late to Save Libya.” Unfortunately, due to the Obama administration’s policy paralysis, time is rapidly running out.
Yesterday Qaddafi’s forces appeared to have taken Ajdabiya, the last major town in eastern Libya before they reach the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. If Benghazi — Libya’s second-largest city — falls, the revolt is finished and the world will have to live with Qaddafi’s barbaric rule for years to come.
That is a prospect that should fill us with dread. If Mubarak was, from the West’s standpoint, a relatively benign dictator, Qaddafi has been a nightmare because of his incessant support of terrorism over the years and his attempts to destabilize neighboring regimes and to create a Libyan empire in Africa. For all these reasons, the Arab League has actually endorsed a no-fly zone over Libya — a momentous step for this group of autocrats to take.
It would have been much easier to topple Qaddafi a few weeks ago, when the rebels were on the offensive and the government forces were in disarray. At that crucial moment, Obama voted “present.” American inaction allowed Qaddafi to get back on his feet and start slaughtering his opponents.
Yet even now we can still keep the rebellion alive. We should pursue a no-fly zone combined with an enclave strategy centered on Benghazi.
The key military fact about Libya is that it is composed mostly of flat desert; this is where some of the most notable tank battles of World War II were fought pitting Rommel against Montgomery. There is nowhere for conventional forces to hide outside an urban area. To take Benghazi, Qaddafi’s forces would have to expose themselves. They would, in other words, become easy targets for air strikes by American, British, and French aircraft operating from a combination of aircraft carriers (the USS Enterprise is in the Red Sea, a day’s steam away from Libya) and from bases in southern Europe; we could even establish a forward operating base at a major Libyan airbase south of Tobruk that is currently in rebel hands.
Thus we could proclaim that we will recognize the National Transition Council ensconced in Benghazi and use our airpower to prevent Qaddafi’s forces from entering the capital of Free Libya. This would buy a precious commodity — time. We could use that time to train and arm the anti-Qaddafi forces. With the rebels secure behind a curtain of NATO airpower, they could organize a proper army and eventually mount a major offensive to finish off Qaddafi once and for all.
This would require a fairly limited commitment on our part that involved primarily airpower and some Special Forces working in cooperation with local rebels: the same combination that proved so effective in toppling the Taliban in 2001 and ousting the Serbs from Kosovo in 1999. Such a strategy is eminently feasible, but it has to be implemented right now. The time for dithering is past if there is to be any chance of saving the Libyan revolution — and incidentally, rescuing Obama’s plummeting reputation.