How Did the Obama Administration Get Drawn Into Libya?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 19, 2011

Dov Zakheim tells the tale. It’s not a pretty one:

It is universally recognized that a no-fly zone no longer will be sufficient to stop Qaddafi from continuing to attack his people (his foreign minister’s offer of a cease-fire notwithstanding). There is already talk of U.N.-sponsored forces attacking the government’s tanks from the air, and if those attacks are insufficient to save the rebels, who are on their last legs, an invasion force could still be mounted. The last thing Washington needs is to be seen attacking Libyan armored forces, on the ground or from the air. America is already resented for killing Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should not be seen as killing Muslims in North Africa.

The administration could have avoided this mess. It set the bar against a no-fly zone at a height it thought no one could jump over. First, it demanded NATO support, which it could have obtained as America almost invariably does when it wants that support; in fact, this time France, and not only Britain, was in its corner. But NATO support was an excuse for inaction, and so Washington did little to support Paris or London and NATO did nothing. The administration also demanded Security Council support, so that in the unlikely event that NATO went along, Russia and China could be counted on to prevent any military action from being endorsed by the U.N.

As Qaddafi made it clear that he would stop at nothing to remain in power, the Arab League surprised everyone by endorsing a no-fly zone. Why did it do so? In part because the traditional monarchs, who rely on a subtle and nuanced combination of tradition, popular support, hand-outs, and their secret police — but not brutal massacres — had no truck with Qaddafi, who in any event had overthrown one of their own. Moreover, Egypt and Tunisia, never comfortable with Qaddafi and now rid of their own autocrats, could empathize with the rebels. Syria remained silent; Yemen’s Saleh was in no position to support a brutal dictator while his own public was calling for his departure.

The administration was now in a box it had created for itself. It certainly could not undercut the Arab League, nor could it hold out any longer against the French and British. So overnight Washington became a leader in the call for U.N. action going well beyond the no-fly zone that only days ago it argued was not practical.

About the only thing we can hope for at this point is that military action against the Qaddafi regime will be more adroit than the Obama Administration’s diplomacy has been.

  • Washington76

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