Editor's Note: Dr. James Lindsay is a Senior Vice President of the Council on Foreign Relations (where he blogs), co-author of the book America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy and former director for global issues and multilateral affairs at the National Security Council.
By Dr. James Lindsay, Special to CNN
Hopes that revolutionary fervor would quickly sweep Moammar Gadhafi from power look to be dashed. The Libyan strongman has secured his hold over Tripoli, the country’s capital and largest city, and his forces have begun attacking rebel strongholds. A protracted Libyan civil war may be looming.
That prospect presents President Obama with a dilemma: How does he encourage Gadhafi's ouster and minimize harm to Libyan civilians without entangling the United States in yet another Middle East conflict? He has seven options.
The administration has already taken several steps to pressure Gadhafi to go. It has frozen $30 billion worth of Libyan assets in the United States, joined with the rest of the international community in banning members of the regime from traveling internationally and voted to suspend Libya’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council.
None of these measures is likely to make a difference, at least any time soon. The travel ban and Human Rights Council suspension are purely symbolic. Sanctions could take months to pinch the regime, if at all.
So what are the White House’s next steps? Direct U.S. military intervention is off the table. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and senior U.S. military officials oppose sending U.S. troops into Libya. The American public feels likewise.
Here is a figure to keep in mind: a majority of Americans – 58 percent according to the latest CNN poll – oppose the war in Afghanistan. Americans don’t want to get out of Afghanistan just so we can go into Libya.
So what might the administration do instead? Here are the seven possibilities:
1) Impose a “no-fly zone.” This is what the U.S. did over parts of Iraq for more than a decade after the 1991 Gulf War. We could also go beyond that and bomb airport runways so they are unusable.
Neither of these steps would help the rebels much. The Libyan Air Force has been a non-factor in the fighting so far. A no-fly zone and cratered runways also would not help the rebels deal with the real threat they face, namely, artillery and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). These advanced weapons are capable of leveling entire neighborhoods.
2) Impose a “no-drive zone.” The White House could tackle the artillery and MLRS threat by bombing these and other heavy weapons. That, however, clearly makes the United States a participant in Libya’s civil war. A no-drive zone would also be ineffective if Gadhafi's forces have already dispersed their heavy weapons into cities and towns. Attacking them in place runs a high risk of killing and injuring civilians.
3) Push someone else to intervene in Libya. But who would volunteer? European countries don’t want to re-assume the colonial mantle. Most of Libya’s neighbors either lack the ability or desire to take on a peacemaking mission. Countries outside the region would prefer to worry about their own problems.
4) Directly arm the rebels. This policy is gaining support on Capitol Hill. But it may merely increase the carnage rather than give the rebels the upper hand. Sophisticated weapons require training to use, but no one is talking about sending in trainers.
Equally troubling, the weapons we want Libyans to use against Gadhafi could wind up in the wrong hands and be used against us down the road. What succeeds Gadhafi's regime may not be a stable, broad-based government but something that looks more like Somalia.
5) Ask other countries to arm the rebels. Unfortunately, that doesn’t solve the problem of weapons ending up in the wrong hands. Would the Saudis, for instance, be careful to make sure that weapons don’t fall in to the hands of Islamic extremists who are as mad at the West as they are at Gadhafi?
6) Provide tactical military intelligence to the rebels. Real-time information about the regime’s troops movements would help the rebels direct their own forces. But it would not be a game changer.
7) Provide the rebels with moral and humanitarian support but nothing else. Debates in Washington always presume that the White House has to do something. But it can choose to do nothing. That sounds cold-hearted, especially when cable news, YouTube, and Twitter will bring the fighting into our living rooms.
But the United States has stood on the sidelines many times before when people struggled to overthrow a tyrant. Moral outrage can give way to calculations of self-interest or political expediency.
None of these options is appealing. That is why inside the White House officials are no doubt hoping that events will save them from having to choose among them.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Lindsay.