7 ugly options for the U.S. in Libya
March 9th, 2011
09:10 AM ET

7 ugly options for the U.S. in Libya

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.

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Topics: Libya • Perspectives • United States

soundoff (430 Responses)
  1. EKrane

    A Muslim regime is purposely killing Muslim civilians – Where is the Arab League? Where is the UN?

    March 9, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Reply
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    March 9, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Reply
  3. Zane

    Funny how China does absolutley nothing for the rest of the world and the US is expected too. 80% of all recalled products are from china. There is a 50% chance if your house was built in 2006 and beyond it has chineese drywall in it that is killing you. Add that to the list of tainted fertilizer, baby formula, kids toys etc. Keep shopping at Wal-Mart people

    March 10, 2011 at 6:24 am | Reply
    • Daniel Huddleston

      I agree, who cares about Libya, if Italy and Germany want to keep their oil pipe line running tell them to get off their butts and do something about it. We have enough war debt to last us a life time and don't need anymore. As far as China and the rest of the Rich World Bankers that hold our Debt I say, get paid is what you do! The American People didn't vote on any of it. And Our Constitution says WE THE PEOPLE so sorry about your losses. You should have ask US first before you loaned it to a run away govenment. You want to do something for the Libyan People, make them a Constitution and a Bill of Rights that taste good in their mouths and drop Pamplets on them so they have something real to demand from their Dictator. Other than that, leave it alone and get our troops out of the Afgan waste land and start using the war budget to stop these mexican drug lords from coming over our borders and pushing Good Tax Paying Farmers off their land.

      March 10, 2011 at 11:17 am | Reply
  4. Artyom

    honestly, i don't know why America is thinking of even interfering in a civil war. This is none of Americas business. only bad things can come from America helping. First and for most, Libya has had this ruler for over 40 years. so i don't really think they hate him the way the news wants us to think else they would have done something sooner. second the small group of rebels are only acting out because of change in leadership in Egypt. there is no such thing as a country where everyone is in favor of the leader. i mean majority of people dislike obama however if we went to march to get him out of the white house it would be viewed as a crime. but back to my point. if america infers in this civil war. i bet you would start to see groups in other countries coming up to rebel against the government in saudi arabia and other places. Those groups would have it in their mind that o america helped libya so i bet they would help us also. yea thats my little rant.

    March 10, 2011 at 7:28 am | Reply
  5. Leonard VanMeter

    I feel sorry for the innocent civilians of Libya, but I'm tired of spending billions upon billions in the Middle East just to assume the role of "bad guy". It just doesn't seem like a good investment.

    March 10, 2011 at 8:51 am | Reply
  6. davidpaulson

    If you guys want to know what's going on in the Middle-East, follow our facebook group
    http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Stop-International-Conflict/129619420445149

    March 10, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  7. amarcnn

    To see James Lindsay respond via text and video to the issues you raised, click here:

    http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/10/response-to-readers-3-reasons-not-to-assassinate-gadhafi/

    March 10, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Reply
  8. Bert

    I cant believe it you guys really have no life im going to slay all of you!!!!!!!!

    March 11, 2011 at 9:40 am | Reply
  9. OttawaMensCentre.com

    Lots of attractive options too.
    Billions of Libyan dollars in US banks that can be spent on arms, "contractors", helicopters that can be modified to gun ships in a flash, surface to air missiles with activation required by Satellite that makes the missile dead for any other purpose in any other area. Drones, Communications equipment, specialist instructors.

    All of course could be provided via third countries the first and easiest of course would be Afghanistan and Georgia or a host of other former soviet countries begging American brownie points.

    March 11, 2011 at 11:08 am | Reply
  10. DN

    It is ironic the economic and foreign policy consequences of our ill-advised invasion of Iraq in seem to be preventing us from acting in a conflict where our intervention is far more justified.

    As an American Jew of Israeli decent, I recognize the quagmire that any intervention in the Middle East can become (it is for that reason that I was vehemently against the invasion of Iraq in 2003). However, in dealing with a part of the world that sees us in the most cynical light, we should not underestimate the impact of non-action. The perception that we are willing to force democracy on our own terms in Iraq while we are willing to let an indigenous movement wither on the vine in Libya will not help our interests any more than it will help the citizens of that unfortunate country.

    I usually feel quite proud when our President reminds us of the consequences of “being on the wrong side of history.” However, I’m deeply worried that historians a generation from now will be marveling at how we got it wrong twice: by choosing to intervene in Iraq and then choosing to do so little in Libya. A failure to answer the voices calling for our aid will not erase the mistakes of the past, it will only add to them.

    Let's not forget, the impulse of isolationism has not "done us proud" in the past. We stood on the sidelines as Germany rose in power and started persecuting my ancestors in the 1930's. We did this in part because of our economic troubles, but also, in part, because of collective guilt about the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.

    March 11, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  11. teachergirl

    Why can't we send in a small secret force to assassinate Gadhafi?

    March 11, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  12. jose hurtado

    if the nice col. had been home the last time we came knocking we wouldnt be having this conversation.world politics is a complicated game for the elite not your average person,but you can believe that something will happen no matter what we do.just hope the solution comes quick so we can plot our next move.people not politicians or dictators should effect change.the world population demands dignity we are not pawns in your capitalist interests.the oil embargo was a test to see what we could stand odd even my behind, gas then was 60 cents a gallon you see how well weve done its only 4 dollars now.not much has changed since early times its all about command and control.

    March 12, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Reply
  13. joeusa

    screw it... empty out our prisons, fly em out there ...arm them, throw em off the plane. tell them whoever gets the bigs guys head on a platter get to their freedom( a lie of course).

    March 12, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  14. really2011

    are you serious... let's fix the state of wisconsin first, then we can help someone else...i mean really, there is "OIL" here to you know. How about some of that "humanitarian" over here in the US...

    March 14, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Reply
  15. cyd

    THIS SUBJECT JUST MAKES ME MAD... WHAT HAS OBAMA DONE FOR THE US OTHER THEN PUT US MORE IN HOLE... I AM TIRED OF HIM THINKING THAT HE CAN RAN THE U.S. ON HIS OWN, HE IS OUT OF CONTROL, HE WAS NOT EVEN BORN IN THE U.S. AND HE IS RUNNING IT RIGHT IN THE GROUND... BUT MAYBE THATS WHAT HE WAS PLANNING THE WHOLE TIME??? IF NO ONE ELSE WANTS TO JUMP IN FOR OTHER PEOPLE WHY THE HECK ARE WE??????? IT IS HARD TO MAKE IT WITH A LARGE FAMILY AND IT GOT TEN TIME WORSE WITH HIM IN OFFICE, OBAMA GIVE IT UP TO OTHERS THAT HAVE MORE KNOW HOW!!!!!!!

    March 24, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  16. Chase martin

    As a conservative 16 year old, I think we should stay out of world affairs and worry about problems here, we're turning into a socialist country, i'm seeing it with my own eyes! Our schools need reform more than our healthcare, and we're worrying about whats happening in some african country with some old dictator thats killing civilians. It's their problem not ours. Who died and made us the world's caretaker? We should only get involved if this biggot attacks american soil, then it's Ok to take it to their land, their people, their blood. These so called peacekeeping operations are just pissing off more and more people, we already have enough enemies, lets just let the world be the world and lets worry about giving the students the proper education, stop government spending, and get out of our socialist ways for good.

    March 31, 2011 at 1:47 am | Reply
  17. luis

    @ jeff- the barracks happend in Beruit dummy.
    @ BRBsandiego- patty is a crackhead
    @ Jim- we dont get our oil from lybia goofball- Italy,France and China do.
    @malcolm- are you sure your not muslim cause they alll sound kinda stupid when they speak.
    @Wil Peters-why dont you jump on a plane a go help yourself.
    @John usa-malcolm is and idiot.
    Look we have no reason to be doing anything we dont get oil from these people anyway, alot of you people have no clue what your saying if the rebels lose than big deal they should of not started this crap in the first place. we need to worry about our southern boarder with MEXICO that problem these is gonna bite us in the butt if we dont get it staightend out.

    April 13, 2011 at 5:24 am | Reply
  18. Chrissie f.

    WHY THE HELL DO WE NEED TO BE IN THEIR RISKING OUR MEN AN WOMENS LIVES!? THEIRS NO POINT! OBAMA NEEDS TO GO HOME CUZ HIS HOME ISNT IN THE U.S., IM ONLY ALMOST 18 AN I KNO WHATS GOIN ON, ITS BULLS*** WE USE OUR RESOURCES FOR COUNTRYS THATD DNT GIVE A DAMN! ITS THE CHRISTIAN THING TO DO TO HELP, BUT NOT STICK OUR NOSES IN OTHER COUNTRYS BUISNESS WHERE IT DNT BELONG, GET THE F**K OUT OF OFFICE OBAMA BEFORE WE IMPEACH U! UR FU**ING ALL OUR S*** UP U DUMB MONKEY! IMPEACH OBAMA!!!

    April 20, 2011 at 8:13 am | Reply
  19. leo

    People fight for something cut be better life,food,better country, another president and some others fight for oil,minerals,control, power ,or just to train there troops .m...?who you are whith

    April 21, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Reply
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