Call me born-again cautious, but after several weeks of calling for an international no-fly zone over Libya - and as an international consensus for one continues to grow - I find myself wondering if the most important benefits from such an intervention are still actually available. In such matters "if it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly" (to borrow from Macbeth), and in some important ways it may already be too late.
Read the whole thing for a depressing and persuasive rundown of all the benefits of a no-fly zone that have disappeared as the weeks have gone by.
Boot concedes that a no-fly zone by itself "might not be enough to topple Gadhafi" (I think we can delete the "might" at this point), and goes on to argue that perhaps what's needed is a Kosovo-style air war, complete with Special Forces on the ground to aid the rebellion. But it might even be too late for that. As French foreign minister Alain Juppé said yesterday, "If we had used military force last week to neutralize some airstrips and the several dozen planes that they have, perhaps the reversal taking place to the detriment of the opposition wouldn't have happened. But that's the past. What is happening today shows us that we may have let slip by a chance." Are we sure we can still turn the tide? Maybe it's just bluster when Saif Gaddafi says that his dad's forces will have reconquered the country within 48 hours. But maybe not.
Boot is absolutely correct about the cost:
Most obvious is the human cost of this dictator continuing his 41-year reign: His throne rests on an ever-growing pile of corpses. But there is also the strategic cost. Given the way the U.S. and our allies have turned against Gadhafi, at least rhetorically, he could easily decide to seek revenge by returning to his old tricks. Considering that Gadhafi was responsible for the midair bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, among many other acts of terror, that is no idle threat.
Moreover, if he is able to keep power by force, it will encourage other Middle Eastern despots to emulate his example. Already the Saudis have sent an armored column to quell protests in Bahrain. Expect more of the same if Gadhafi clings to power. The Arab Spring could easily turn into a very dark winter that will arrest and reverse the momentum of recent pro-democracy demonstrations. That means consigning the entire region to a dysfunctional status quo ante in which the long-term winners will be al Qaeda and their ilk.
The Obama administration's dithering has been baffling to Europe, which is impotent without US leadership. As Gaddafi's planes attack Benghazi, the US ambassador is suddenly seeking authorization from the Security Council for intervention. Don't expect it (waiting for UN authorization, as Abe Greenwald notes tartly, amounts to outsourcing our foreign policy to the autocracies who hold veto power). But even if it comes, it's not at all clear that it will be soon enough to do any good.
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