Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, and Central Command boss Gen. Jim Mattis are right to warn that imposing a no-fly zone in Libya would not be cost-free. It would indeed be, as Mattis told Congress, a serious military undertaking that would require taking out Libyan air defenses. This is not a step we should take easily or lightly; we need to think through all the repercussions. But there is a powerful case for action that goes beyond the humanitarian imperative to stop a dictator totally divorced from reality who is using brutal force against his own people.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warns that as things now stand, Libya could face a “protracted civil war.” If she’s right, that is the worst possible news, because civil wars tend to be polarizing events that allow radicals and demagogues to come to the fore. We have seen in the past how civil wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq unleashed pent-up sectarian tensions and empowered the worst extremists — from Slobodan Milosevic to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Moqtada al-Sadr.
When there is no strong central government to safeguard order, people tend to look for protection to militias of their own tribe or ethnicity. The result can be terrible violence, and it can last for years, making it hard to reimpose central control. Somalia is the worst-case example. Libya has the advantage of not being divided by religion — pretty much all Libyans are Sunni Muslims — but it is divided between Arabs and Berbers and, more important, among numerous tribes. Before it was unified by Italian invaders in the 1920s-30s, Libya was not even a single state; it was comprised of three Ottoman provinces (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan). Qaddafi, who has ruled since 1969, has not created strong governmental institutions. The potential for chaos and radicalization is great if the present fighting continues indefinitely — and al-Qaeda stands by, licking its chops, ready to take advantage.
If such an outcome can be prevented by a relatively modest commitment of American and allied airpower — and especially if we can act in cooperation with NATO as we did in Kosovo — the case for action becomes compelling. I would certainly not favor sending any ground troops unless something changes radically for the worse, but they should not be needed. As in Kosovo, there is a substantial force of rebels on the ground that can do the hard and dangerous work of finishing off the existing regime; we could help at a relatively safe remove. The key for the opposition is to decide what it wants. We should only help the rebels if they publicly ask for our help. But if they do, and we come to their aid, we could help to establish that America is on the side of the forces of freedom in the region — something that can rightly be called into question by our decades of support for various despots, including, most recently, the mad bomber of Tripoli, Qaddafi himself.