U.S. Options for a Libya Intervention

We are a week into the new U.S. policy seeking for Col. Muammar Qaddafi to leave power in Libya. And Libyans are another week into their bloody civil war, the future trajectory of which remains impossible to predict.

Should Washington’s response to this crisis include the use of military force, and if so, how should it be done?

A fierce debate has now erupted over the advisability of establishing a no-fly zone — with Defense Secretary Robert Gates the greatest apparent skeptic to date. Rather than focus on this alone, it may be more helpful to consider the full range of options, and the prospects for success of each.

None of these options should be exercised unless and until the League of Arab States officially calls for its adoption, and until at least some members agree to participate in the implementation of the resulting plan.

Support from the U.N. Security Council, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the African Union would help as well. But political consensus does not appear magically. So any agreement will require first a clear understanding of what we might actually do.

1) A No-Fly Zone. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have both warned of the difficulty of this option. They have pointed out that it involves not just patrolling the skies but dropping ordnance on air defense facilities. It would, in fact, be an act of war — if a limited and justified one.

Indeed, it might be made more effective if we sought actually to destroy Libyan aircraft on the ground rather than keep them out of the air. But then even more weaponry would need to be used, and more Libyan lives and property lost.

The case for caution about no fly zones is real. But Gates and Mullen have put their emphasis on the wrong warning. In fact, creating such zones is eminently doable. It is not particularly risky, given Libya’s location and geography, as Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), among others, have argued.

But a no-fly zone might not accomplish its goals of fending off Qadhafi’s brutes and foreign mercenaries, since their major weapons do not appear to be airplanes. It is not a bad idea, necessarily. But not greatly promising either.

2) Arming the Opposition. So far the opposition seems to be surviving through a combination of defections from the army, ransacking of military warehouses and use of personal weapons or improvised devices of various sorts. Alas, the resulting portfolio of weapons in rebel hands may not be enough, ultimately, to hold off Qadhafi’s legions. It certainly may not be enough to march on Tripoli — if that is the ultimate goal we would like the opposition to achieve. Should we equip them more robustly?

Arms transfers can happen fast once authorized. Delivery of some types of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons can be done literally within days. That is, if we know who needs them, and who can be trusted with them—and how to get them into the places they are needed, which could involve some danger to those doing the delivering. They can help accomplish many of the same goals as a NATO or Arab League establishment of a no fly zone. Indeed, they could be more effective in the end since they could help with the ground war as well.

3) Creating No-Drive Zones. Qadhafi’s forces have been moving into Libya from abroad and have been moving around the country as they seek to retake cities like Benghazi, the center of the revolution, which IS currently in rebel hands. Outside airpower could be used to attack these forces when they mass on highways.

But there are concerns about this. First, it is hard to distinguish lighter military vehicles from civilian vehicles — so many targeting mistakes could occur. Second, many of Qadhafi’s forces have already deployed around the country, so it may be too late for this option to have its greatest effectiveness.

That said, if Qaddafi were to try to mass forces for a larger assault say on Benghazi in the coming days or weeks, this approach could help prevent that.

4) Protecting Rebel-Held Cities with Foreign Ground Troops. Admittedly we are a long way from even discussing this distasteful option. But if the slaughter intensifies and Qadhafi seems on the verge of winning the war and reclaiming control, it may make sense.

Roughly two brigades of outside forces, say 10,000 to 15,000 troops, could deploy to Libya with light weapons within a few weeks. They could join with opposition forces to protect at least the major rebel strongholds.

It is especially important for such a force to include Arabs and other Muslims, rather than to be NATO led. And with American forces so preoccupied elsewhere, it would be best if the U.S. contribution were limited to providing logistics and communications support. It could ideally be accompanied by a formal Arab League-U.N.-NATO-African Union joint resolution (with as many of these groups as possible), and stating that its only purpose was defensive and would not be used to move on Tripoli or overthrow Qaddafi.

5) Invading. This is the most extreme option, and unpalatable now — but worth considering among the full range of military possibilities. It would be the only one that would directly achieve our formal goal of “regime change.”

Again, it would only be imaginable if the violence got far worse — and the Arab world as well as the Libyan opposition called for it. In any case, the U.S. and NATO roles should not be the predominant ones, even if U.S. troops might assist.

Based on military doctrine and analogies from cases like the Panama invasion of 1989, perhaps 30,000 foreign troops, mobilized over several weeks, would be right for this job.

Stabilizing the country after, however, could require far more troops —perhaps in excess of 50,000. Casualties in the intervention phase itself could range well into the hundreds for foreign troops, and likely several times that for the Libyan partisans.

There is no single clear answer about what we should do next. And it is not clear that any military option really makes sense now. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, all options are on the table. But it is not clear which would help most.

My instincts lean toward arming the opposition with limited numbers of small weapons. But only if the opposition itself, as well as the Arab League, clearly calls for such a policy — and if the latter is willing to help implement it. That might suffice to help solidify a military stalemate. It could also buy us time to try collectively to persuade and pressure Qaddafi to abdicate through other, nonlethal means, over the coming weeks and months.

It seems to be the most likely — and best — outcome at this point, even if it is not as clean or quick as many would prefer. But other possibilities and scenarios cannot be dismissed, depending on how the situation evolves.

War is an unpredictable business.