May 27th, 2011
07:07 PM ET

5 options for the U.S. in Libya

Editor's Note: Dr. James M. Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he blogs), co-author of "America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy" and a former director for global issues and multilateral affairs at the National Security Council.

By James M. Lindsay – Special to CNN

More than two months of bombing make it clear that the United States and its NATO allies are seeking to oust Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. The air war, however, is not producing the quick result that NATO wanted.

President Obama continues to resist European calls for a greater American commitment. He argues for sitting tight — the air war will eventually force Gadhafi from power.

Public opinion polls explain Obama’s reluctance to do more right now — Americans take a dim view of the operation. A new Quinnipiac University Poll finds that 57 percent of Americans don’t think that the United States should be involved in Libya. Democrats and Republicans are equally unenthusiastic.

But sitting tight requires patience that Americans and Europeans may not have. If domestic opposition to the air war grows, Gadhafi and his supporters might gain confidence that he can hang on, thereby undermining the bombing campaign.

What steps could the administration take if it decides that the current air war isn’t working, or working fast enough? Obama has repeatedly ruled out sending in U.S. combat troops. Given the American public’s intervention fatigue, he isn’t likely to change his mind.

So what might he do instead? Here are five possibilities:

1) Seek a negotiated solution. Washington could cut a deal with Gadhafi that imposes a ceasefire or sends him into exile. The Libyan dictator looks to be searching for such a deal.

Obama has said it is “impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gadhafi in power.” So any deal that allows him or his sons to continue ruling, which is what a ceasefire would do, would be seen as a substantial defeat.

2) Arm the Rebels. Obama has authorized sending Libyan rebels $25 million worth of nonlethal equipment like body armor and uniforms. The British, French, and Italians have gone slightly further, providing some military advisers. Sending military arms might tip the balance in the fighting because airstrikes have seriously degraded Gadhafi’s military forces.

Arming the rebels does not guarantee a quick victory. Sophisticated weapons require training to use, and that training can take months. Washington also worries that weapons sent to Libyan rebels today could end up in the hands of anti-U.S. forces tomorrow.

3) Ask NATO allies to do more. Obama has pushed Britain and France to lead the air war. They have grumbled but complied. France has begun dispatching attack helicopters to Libya, and Britain is considering the move. Washington can insist they do even more.

How much more NATO allies can and will do, though, is an open question. The capacity of some contributing countries is already being tested, and European capitals share Washington’s reluctance to wade deeper into Libya. So pushing Europe to do more could strain the transatlantic alliance

4) Expand the air war. NATO could expand its target list to put more pressure on Gadhafi’s supporters. It also could use airpower to support rebel fighters on the ground. Britain and France want the United States to commit roughly ten close air support aircraft to the fight. These AC-130 and A-10 planes were used early in the fighting to destroy Gadhafi’s tanks.

Two months of bombing have destroyed most of Libya’s militarily significant targets. Gadhafi’s forces now avoid airstrikes by hiding amongst civilians. Widening the target set or sending in close air support aircraft risks killing more civilians and undermining domestic support for the air war.

5) Send in Special Forces. Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. They could try to replicate that feat in Tripoli.

The Abbottabad raid worked because the United States had exceptional intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts as well as the element of surprise. Precise information about Gadhafi’s location is hard to come by, and Special Forces wouldn’t have surprise working for them. A raid that turned into Blackhawk Down rather than Abbottabad would hand Gadhafi a major political victory.

Even as Obama struggles with how to push out Gadhafi, he has to contemplate a bigger challenge: what to do once he is gone. Iraq offers a cautionary lesson that it is far easier to topple dictators than it is to install just and effective governments.

Topics: Libya • United States

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soundoff (114 Responses)
  1. We

    "We have woken a sleeping gaint"
    Japanese General after the Bombing of Pearl Harbor.

    You really want to wake me up again?

    May 31, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Reply
    • Mark

      Pearl harbour was just a movie which was created as an attempt to make the Japanese look like they were at fault, a form of propoganda, but yes, the giant is awake.

      May 31, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Reply
      • We

        Wow, people these days are crazy as hell, half yall deserve to be in "happy farm palace".
        Oh, and btw US has not even done a draft yet and has not put its economic power into action either.
        The giant is very very much asleep.

        May 31, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
  2. ibnbatuta

    The USA five options would be to convince itself and four other members of the security council to do the right thing in North Africa and the Middle East!

    May 31, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  3. RebellionStorm

    "57 percent of Americans don’t think that the United States should be involved in Libya" LOL, looks like some people learned their lesson the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, i fully support NATO in their appreciated attempts to free a nation from a tyrant.

    May 31, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Reply
  4. Rick01

    From Twitter

    ** Several loud explosions were heard over Tripoli as jets were circling above. Tripoli residents could be heard cheering and whistling on the rooftops.

    ** Sky News sources reporting more army defections over tunisian border.”

    May 31, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  5. Rick01

    From Reuters

    Goldman Sachs invested more than $1.3 billion from Libya’s sovereign-wealth fund in currency bets and other trades in 2008 and the investment lost more than 98 percent of its value, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing internal Goldman documents.

    When the fund, controlled by Col. Muammar Gaddafi, made huge losses Goldman offered Libya the chance to become one of its biggest shareholders, the Journal said, citing people familiar with the matter. Among the different proposals put forward by Goldman Sachs to recoup the losses was one in which Libya would get $5 billion in preferred Goldman shares in return for investing $3.7 billion into the securities firm, the paper added.

    May 31, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Reply
  6. Amir Tadros

    @ Dr. James M. Lindsay

    Option 5 is not an option. Sending in the SF/Navy Seals to kill a president of a country is not the same as sending them to kill the head of a terrorist organization. It is not a Hollywood action movie you do know that right?

    May 31, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Reply
    • Amir Tadros

      If we actually knew where Muammar is hiding, don't you think a cruise missle would have done the job?

      May 31, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  7. Eight 1000

    Maybe a person could be delegated to request the Gadhafi strongman to meet in a discreet location and convince him to step down in a public, orderly and courteous manner. But that is simply my opinion.

    (It may seem like a sugar coated and naive conviction, but I see it as something handy.)

    I bet there is a motivational speaker out there that could change the old guy's mind about maintaining his power in Libya.

    Diplomacy is always an effective prerogative when it comes to politics.

    Treaties and Accords and talks have ended a number of armed conflicts in past times. I cannot envision how something of the kind cannot operate in this type of setting.

    Please send replies of a respectful kind if you feel so willing to concur, rebuke, or mention a deferred comment.

    Someone out there must happen to know exactly what to say in a most firm, composed and respected manner to Mr. Gadhafi to sway his thoughts amongst ruling a militarist dictatorship in this North African domain, Libya.

    May 31, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Reply
    • Robert Stone

      I agree with you. It s a good idea. and I might ad, let the same be done to NATO and the US government, to help them see that bombing Libya and forcing civil war is NOT in the best interests of the MAJORITY of the Libyan people and is in fact WAR CRIMES.
      You seem to think Gaddhafi a strong man, but what would you call a Bush who ordered the destruction of a whole country on false charges? We are being brainwashed against Goddafi by the media, when the majority of Libyans love him for what he has done. The real criminals are in Israel, the US, Saudi, who do NOT care for civilians and use the word democracy to tweak and manipulate our sense of justice.

      May 31, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Reply
      • Eight 1000

        I was saying 'strongman' mostly because the reporter said it. Think of it as objective analysis, in a sense.

        June 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  8. Robert Stone

    The audacity of NATO and the US and the Media painting the Libyan government as terrorists is typical of Nazi and Communist brainwashing. Tell big enough lies and the people will believe anything.
    glorifying a bunch of terrorists attacking the government of Libya and calling them the legitimate government? is supporting terrorism, the very thing the US destroyed Iraq and Afganistan for. Who are the real terrorists?
    America is NOT the America that once stood up for what is right but has become a tool in the hands of the big money boys. The US presidency is compromised . America,, take back your country..

    May 31, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Reply
  9. Roman Gil

    Here is the 6th Option. Get out now. Every bomb that falls on lIbya is financed by debt and it represents a nail in our coffin. We have wasted $5 Trillion in 10 years to fight Osama's few hundred followers. Osama's plan was to banrupt America by drawing it into war in Muslim countries.

    America's fatal love affair with Israel and the $3.5 billion debt dollars that it gives it in aid, got us involved in the Israeli-Muslim conflict. In my blog I explain how over 50% of American military forces are war contractors and have the official government statistics. Two third of the war contractor employees are foreigners. How well will they fight in a real hot war like Vietnam? In my blog I tell the truth about the war contractor multi-Trillion dollar business

    Roman Gil

    June 1, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  10. Kris

    Note that as Congress has not issued a declaration of war as required by Art.I Sec. 8 of the Constitution, this war is illegal in the first place. Obama's excuse has been that it's not a "real war" because there are no ground troops, which has no legal basis. Sending in ground troops without Congressional authorization would be grounds for impeachment.

    June 2, 2011 at 11:23 am | Reply
  11. Gary Tucker

    It is my position the the Arab Spring is potentially the greatest chance for peace in the entire region in decades.
    It is indeed the "Arab" Spring not the Tunisian Spring or the Egyptian Spring nor even the Syrian Spring. In every country the long term goals are primarily two. Greater political freedom and greater economic opportunities for millions of unemployed. As it stands now some countries are on the edge of being able to deliver on the promise of the first. As for the second, substantial economic progress, this is currently a distant goal at best for all countries involved. As long as their is no clear idea of what the endgame will be in Libya, Palestine and Syria, there will never be the investment needed to fulfill the needs of those countries as well as Egypt and Tunisia. Thus the "Arab" Spring is in danger of being still born. There is also the reality that the major parties on both sides of these "revolutions" are going to have to make peace to make any progress going forward. Not an easy task. The solution to this problem may also be Israels chance to solve it's long standing impasse with the Palestinians.
    The only way any one country involved in the Arab Spring will be able to deliver dramatically on BOTH goals demanded of their citizens is for all those countries to become one.
    Tunisia needs to vote to join the Libyan rebels, not as allies, but as fellow long term countrymen. The same is true for Egypt. Together the first step can be reached. A non NATO led liberation of the three as one. A gesture such as agreeing to put the combined capital of the three in Al Bayda Libya is the type of compromise needed time and time again going forward. However, the ability to also transfer various members of armed forces, civil servants and such to other parts of the combined country will ease tensions among the recently warring parties for years to come. The combined economic expertise, natural resource revenues and large potential domestic markets for goods, backed by direct foreign investment should spur growth as never before in the combined region.
    Just as countless Arab governments have for millennium, the drafting of outside leadership to come and rule a country as capable but neutral parties could rarely be needed more than in this case.
    Thus, while not in anywhere near the brink of chaos as it's neighbors, the obvious choices to lead the newly formed combined countries, and indeed to join the new entity would be King Abdullah II of Jordan and the likes of Munib R. Masri of Palestine as the original Prime Minister could form the type of government needed to both provide long term stability as a constitutional monarchy but also with a leader of government respected throughout the entire combined countries of the region.
    The over riding theme of the unification is the willingness of each national sovereign nation to re identify themselves as members of a new country for the good of the common whole. The new theme of "I am doing this not only for me but for the good of countless millions of fellow countrymen so that I might provide political and economic equality for myself and my extended family and tribe" has not had such an opportunity for perhaps decades. Which leads, if one has not already surmised, the unique opportunity to bring millions of Palestinians to the same goal. "If we wish a better life we are now Libyans (or whatever the agreed upon name) and Arabs and we have a chance to move forward under new leadership to create a new future for ourselves and our future generations". Thus a united Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan and Palestine could become the model for other "endgames" to other nations of not only the Arab world but for sub Saharan Africa and other regions of the world.

    June 8, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Reply
    • murad

      why don't u shove all that crap up your ass u little prick....fucking Pentagon agent son of a bitch! FUCK YOU!

      June 10, 2011 at 3:37 am | Reply
    • buzz

      Its a nice thought but wishful thinking. It will not last. Maybe in 50 years it's possible. For now Come home let them settle it on their own – Fix America first. In 20 years Afghanistan will be controlled by radicals and we will be 1.5 trn poorer for our effort. When we captured Sadam and his cronies we needed to come home. If the Iraq people want freedom they need to do it themselves or they do not deserve it. If they earn it they will hang on to it as we did.

      July 16, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  12. buzz

    July 16, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  13. Kyong Nanney

    Perfect knowledge appreciation for posting about it. The truth is in all of posts of this blog you can find something to educate yourself on.

    December 18, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Reply
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