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US Mulls Limited Intervention in Libya

(photo: Crethi Plethi)

The Libyan civil war has settled into a very traditional battle for territory. Rebels are advancing on the capitol from the east, while loyalists to Moammar Gadhafi try to take back rebel-held cities. At least as of yesterday, Gadhafi’s forces seem to be taking advantage. They waged a ground attack on Misurata, the third-largest city in the country, and they easily held Gadhafi’s hometown of Surt. Loyalists to the regime have exulted in Tripoli as reports come in of Gadhafi’s army beating back the rebels. One side has heavy artillery, rocket propelled grenades and air cover; the other side pretty much doesn’t.

So, what is there to do? The US is very reluctant to engage in a military mission in Libya, which would add to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the covert operations in Pakistan and Yemen and probably half a dozen more I’m not counting. The rebels are seeking air support to level the playing field against Gadhafi’s forces, or at least a no-fly zone so Gadhafi cannot bombard his own people. But the White House appears sensitive to the charge of being a Muslim conqueror:

The defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, and top commanders have warned of political fallout if America again attacks a Muslim nation, even to support a popular revolt. So military planners on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and in its field commands are offering a broad range of approaches, depending on how events play out in Libya and how tough the United States and its allies want to be.

Even without firing a shot, a relatively passive operation using signal-jamming aircraft in international airspace could muddle Libyan government communications with military units. Administration officials said Sunday that preparations for such an operation were under way.

But there are also military units in the area, including a Marine task force that has air and sea capabilities. These units can also provide humanitarian assistance, including medical support and a refugee airlift. The strategy might just be to have this sitting off the shore of Tripoli to pressure the regime.

Former national security adviser Stephen Hadley suggested air-dropping weapons into Libya to aid the rebel forces, which sounds like a terrible idea given the nature of the conflict and the inability to know in whose hands those weapons would eventually wind up. And the article also suggests that small Special Operations teams could help train the rebels; as I understand it that’s what’s happening now, with respect to UK advisors.

It’s a genuinely risky situation, and I don’t think there’s necessarily an absolute right or wrong thing to do here. The imperative should be protecting the citizens of Libya, but I’m not convinced an invasion would get us to that goal. The President does not want an American face on the Arab uprising, and with so many countries in the region in upheaval, an intervention in one of them would lead to calls for more. So there’s a balance to be struck here, and I really don’t know what it is.

CommunityThe Bullpen

US Mulls Limited Intervention in Libya

The Libyan civil war has settled into a very traditional battle for territory. Rebels are advancing on the capitol from the east, while loyalists to Moammar Gadhafi try to take back rebel-held cities. At least as of yesterday, Gadhafi’s forces seem to be taking advantage. They waged a ground attack on Misurata, the third-largest city in the country, and they easily held Gadhafi’s hometown of Surt. Loyalists to the regime have exulted in Tripoli as reports come in of Gadhafi’s army beating back the rebels. One side has heavy artillery, rocket propelled grenades and air cover; the other side pretty much doesn’t.

So what is there to do? The US is very reluctant to engage in a military mission in Libya, which would add to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the covert operations in Pakistan and Yemen and probably half a dozen more I’m not counting. The rebels are seeking air support to level the playing field against Gadhafi’s forces, or at least a no-fly zone so Gadhafi cannot bombard his own people. But the White House appears sensitive to the charge of being a Muslim conqueror:

The defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, and top commanders have warned of political fallout if America again attacks a Muslim nation, even to support a popular revolt. So military planners on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and in its field commands are offering a broad range of approaches, depending on how events play out in Libya and how tough the United States and its allies want to be.

Even without firing a shot, a relatively passive operation using signal-jamming aircraft in international airspace could muddle Libyan government communications with military units. Administration officials said Sunday that preparations for such an operation were under way.

But there are also military units in the area, including a Marine task force that has air and sea capabilities. These units can also provide humanitarian assistance, including medical support and a refugee airlift. The strategy might just be to have this sitting off the shore of Tripoli to pressure the regime.

Former national security adviser Stephen Hadley suggested air-dropping weapons into Libya to aid the rebel forces, which sounds like a terrible idea given the nature of the conflict and the inability to know in whose hands those weapons would eventually wind up. And the article also suggests that small Special Operations teams could help train the rebels; as I understand it that’s what’s happening now, with respect to UK advisors.

It’s a genuinely risky situation, and I don’t think there’s necessarily an absolute right or wrong thing to do here. The imperative should be protecting the citizens of Libya, but I’m not convinced an invasion would get us to that goal. The President does not want an American face on the Arab uprising, and with so many countries in the region in upheaval, an intervention in one of them would lead to calls for more. So there’s a balance to be struck here, and I really don’t know what it is.

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David Dayen

David Dayen