The debate over Libya this week in Washington isn't about what the U.S. goal should be. President Obama settled that question last week when he declared: "It's time for Kadafi to go." He's reaffirmed that message several times, and leaders of the most important U.S. allies in Europe — Britain, Germany and France — have made similar statements.
Instead, the question is what role the United States and its allies will play in the brutal and mercurial dictator's removal.
Administration officials say they've prepared a wide range of options for the president, but allowing Kadafi to win isn't one of them. Among the options being discussed are a no-fly zone, a "no-drive" zone (meaning combat air cover for the rebels), arms shipments and, least controversial, humanitarian aid alone.
The debate is a familiar one, with roots in the immediate post-Cold War period of the 1990s, when the U.S. was debating military intervention in places like Bosnia, Rwanda and Iraq. Now, as then, the issue isn't polarized predictably between Republicans and Democrats. Instead, it divides both parties into hawks and doves, interventionists and hesitators.
The hawks include Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), all of whom have argued that a no-fly zone should be one of the administration's next steps.
The skeptics include Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), all of whom have echoed the warnings of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that a no-fly zone would be difficult, costly and — most important — an act of war that could lead to deeper commitment down the road.
So far, Obama and his aides have sided with the hesitators.
That's been a continuing feature of Obama's approach to democracy in the Middle East. He's been enthusiastic in principle but stingy in practice. When democratic movements arose in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt, his first reaction was not intervention or even cheerleading; it was caution. Obama favors democracy, but he knows he won his job partly by being skeptical about military intervention in Iraq.
It's striking how many roadblocks Obama's aides have raised against military action in Libya. Gates' skepticism about a no-fly zone unleashed a chorus of military officers who questioned whether that option would work at all, or be worth the risks. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that it was "very important" that the United Nations Security Council approve any action, a condition that could be a deal-breaker for a no-fly zone since Russia or China could veto the idea.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said all options were on the table, including weapons shipments to the rebels — once we figure out who they are and which ones we want to back. But Clinton's spokesman at the State Department, P.J. Crowley, said the U.N.'s arms embargo on Libya applies to the rebels as well as Kadafi. "It would be illegal for the United States to [send weapons]," Crowley said.
That doesn't mean arms shipments won't happen; it just means they won't be legal. Don't be surprised if unmarked trucks from next-door Egypt — whose military leaders would be happy to see Kadafi go too — turn up in Benghazi to deliver antiaircraft guns. It won't happen with U.S. participation or even explicit encouragement, but the administration isn't likely to discourage the idea either. (The Clinton administration did something similar in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where it turned a blind eye to sanctions-busting arms shipments from, of all places, Iran.)
That seems to leave humanitarian aid to rebel areas as the obvious starting point for Western action. But in a civil war, nothing is as simple as it looks. Seaborne or airborne deliveries of humanitarian aid would need protection against Kadafi's air force. It's worth remembering that the U.S. imposed no-fly zones in Iraq in 1992 as measures to protect humanitarian aid deliveries to opponents of Saddam Hussein — and that neither the George H.W. Bush nor Clinton administrations secured explicit U.N. authority.
One difference between today's debate and that in the 1990s: This time, we don't have to reinvent the wheel. We know how a no-fly zone works. We've launched "humanitarian" military operations before, both with and without U.N. authorization. We've turned a blind eye to covert arms shipments when it suited our interests.
So the velocity of decision-making is greater. In Bosnia, the big powers dithered for three years before bringing the war to an end, in part by launching airstrikes against the Bosnian Serb army. In Libya, we've already taken the first steps up the now well-worn ladder of escalation. The rebellion is only weeks old, but the Western powers have already frozen Libya's assets, embargoed Libya's oil and begun planning potential military operations.
Obama and his aides hoped that Libya would be like Tunisia or Egypt, an immaculate insurrection without any need for intervention. That, alas, was wishful thinking.
So far, as one U.S. official told me, Kadafi has avoided any large-scale massacres that might cause revulsion in the West and force Obama's hand. But that may not last. If Kadafi's forces begin retaking lost ground — and if they begin killing civilians in the process — the pressure on Obama to act will increase.
Libya appears headed for a protracted civil war, and we've already chosen sides. Like it or not, we're already involved. The only question is: What will we have to do to make good on our commitment?