There Are No Easy Choices in Libya

There Are No Easy Choices in Libya

By Richard Reeves - March 9, 2011

LOS ANGELES -- Adam Zyglis, the editorial cartoonist of The Buffalo News, did a portrait of President Obama sitting on an oil drum in the classic chin-on-hand pose of Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker." Behind him, war raged in the Middle East and "Freedom" was under a tank and rubble. Zyglis' caption was "The Overthinker."

Well, although Obama may be a touch too thoughtful to be a president in the decisive mold of a Harry Truman, he does have a lot to think about. I count at least 11 options in Libya, all of them risky.

1. Invade Libya and get rid of Moammar Gadhafi once and for all. Risk: This could be seen as our third invasion of a Muslim country in a decade. Many Arabs, particularly, would see that as a modern crusade to destroy Islam. And to quote Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: "Since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right -- from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq and more."

2. The "No Fly Zone": Use American airpower to try to ground Gadhafi's old jets. Risk: the cratering of Libyan airports and destroying radar and anti-aircraft emplacements. That would be an act of war and could have the same downside as all-out invasion. Plus, Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, argues that "no fly" would be ineffective against helicopters.

3. Besiege Libya by sea and air. Risk: Same as above.

4. Persuade the United Nations or NATO to put bombs or boots on the ground. Risk: A bit less, because even though American weaponry and men would probably take the lead, the president would have the cover of international sanction.

5. Supply the Libyan rebels with arms. Risk: United States weapons more often than not end up in the hands of bad guys like the Taliban. And the rebels don't know how to use the weapons.

6. So, "covertly" send small commando-style units of a dozen or so trainers to teach the rebels how to use the weapons and how to fight a semi-modern army. Result: Arabs on all sides may see even small numbers of American or Western troops as just another attempt to put them down and get their oil.

7. Jam military and commercial radio transmissions in Libya. Risk: It's probably against international law, as President Clinton argued during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, which was driven by radio calls for massacre and genocides. The risk there could be regret. Years later, Clinton would say not jamming was the worst decision of his presidency.

8. Find a way to bribe military men around Gadhafi to abandon him or, better, assassinate him. Risk: As in South Vietnam after the killing of President Diem by his own soldiers, we ended up with worse leaders -- and worse than them, we broke the country and then we owned it. It became our war rather than a civil war.

9. Work through that most unreliable of allies, Saudi Arabia. They supply the money, we provide the force. Risk: The Saudis destabilize themselves, which is not a good idea if you are addicted to oil, as we are.

10. Provide humanitarian aid in rebel areas. Probably a good idea. Risk: Gadhafi will end up getting the stuff.

11. Do nothing. Speak loudly and carry a small stick. Libya is, after all, their country, not ours. Risk: Gadhafi will hold out and slaughter every rebel he can find.

So that's what the president is thinking about. If there is one consolation, it is this: Whatever he decides, the loyal opposition in Congress will say he made the wrong choice.



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Richard Reeves

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