Obama did as I imagined he might, and flipped on whether or not to get militarily involved in Libya. It came just before Qaddafi was preparing to lay siege to the last rebel stronghold in Benghazi. Obama proclaimed:
All attacks against civilians must stop.
But isn’t the definition of a “civilian” somebody that is not actively employed in a government’s military force? Since the rebels are presumably all civilians, does this mean that all attacks must stop?
And by what grand military measure is this command to be enforced? Presumably by grounding the Libyan air forces, imposing a no-fly zone over Libya– “no-fly” referring to Libyan government aircraft and not to “coalition” forces.
But Obama promised that imposing a no-fly zone does not mean committing ground troops to the battle.
What if imposing a no-fly zone simply means that Qaddafi continues his assault on the rebel forces, but without use of his antiquated and mostly ineffective air force? Qaddafi’s air power was never going to win the battle, one way or another. What then?
Obama claims that the US will take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. But how, exactly, can that be accomplished without ground troops? Will the US simply begin operating as the rebels’ air force, conducting strafing runs on the Libyan government’s forces at the rebel’s direction?
What happens if air power proves sufficient to prevent Qaddafi’s victory, but not enough to propel his ouster? Will the West carve Libya into two or more sovereigns, like it did in Korea and Vietnam, and considered doing in Iraq? That seems to have worked out well in every instance its been tried. Pakistan and India are like pals these days, no? Anything less than a Qaddafi ouster and the US and West loses face, which carries nearly as much weight in international relations as actual victories and losses.
Like most civil wars, choosing sides in this conflict is apt to be messy and fraught with unexpected consequences. So far as the interests of the United States goes, it is not clear that the loss or victory of either side would prove beneficial. What is clear is that the longer the conflict goes on, the worse it is for the US and the West. By again making proclamations he apparently has no will to enforce, Obama makes the situation more, rather than less, dangerous, because he has now practically guaranteed the prolongation of the conflict.
Instituting a no-fly zone will require some wet work, even if most of it will be directed from fighter aircraft at several thousand feet above the fray, or from warships several miles out to sea. Doing it from a distance doesn’t make killing any more or less than what it is. And it’s not clear to me that killing for one side or the other in this conflict is justified on either moral or practical grounds. Qaddafi’s a meglomaniacal dictator, willing to kill as many of his people as is necessary in order to retain control. In a word, he’s like practically every dictator with which the US had allied (Hussein and Noriega come to mind) over the course of its history. Would the rebels be better for the Libyans and for the US? It simply is not clear.