It will be a great learning opportunity to observe what happens in the next few days. This week marks the first time a no-fly zone has been authorized without explicit U.S. leadership and a U.S.-led plan for implementation. When earlier no-fly zones were imposed in the Balkans and Iraq, the U.S. was already in the lead: the UN and the enforcement coalitions moved forward with the strategic vision of the U.S. as the common proposition.
That is not the case for Libya. I agree with Max Boot that there are effective ways to employ military force in Libya, but the emerging conditions are not favorable. For one thing, the basic situation has changed overnight. As satisfying as it is to see the threat of a no-fly zone force a strategic adjustment on Qaddafi, his cease-fire declaration may serve to spike Britain’s and France’s guns. The next move for the coalition forming against him is not what it seemed to be 12 hours ago.
It is not clear which direction the coalition will go. Britain is reportedly interested in coming out of this with regime change; other partners regard that as overreach. Hillary Clinton said this morning that the U.S. “will not be impressed by words” from Qaddafi and “must see action on the ground” — but it’s not obvious that Qaddafi has been informed of what action would be satisfactory, or even what the threat is if he fails to take it.
Americans have been accustomed to a very specific regime of national decision-making and public communication when we are enforcing no-fly zones. In each case, from the very first day, there has traditionally been a set of policy objectives to refer to — something for media outlets to frame in an information “box” — and a military chain of command lined up to explain events and be held accountable. None of that exists for this no-fly zone, and it bears emphasizing that that is unprecedented.
France, Britain, Canada, and Denmark have committed forces to the enterprise, and we are justified in having the highest regard for their military professionalism. The no-fly zone will apparently be a NATO operation, which is another positive sign. But a no-fly zone by itself is not enough to produce a resolution for Libya’s crisis. Going beyond mere enforcement, on the other hand, may be too much for this coalition’s unity. The U.S. military learned from Vietnam — and to a lesser extent from Somalia — that it is imprudent to commit arms where these conditions obtain. Military force is a tool of strategy and will, not a substitute for them.
A little more time may obviate this entire debate; with his cease-fire announcement, Qaddafi has transformed the strategic problem in a way that cannot be countered without initiative from the coalition, as opposed to the reactive measure represented by a no-fly zone. If it does come down to U.S. forces being committed in Libya, Congress and the people should remember the lessons of previous poorly defined interventions. We should demand a coherent statement of U.S. interests and objectives, and subject it to the most exacting analysis and criticism.