A Libyan rebel grimaces on the front line near Sultan, south of Benghazi. (Anja Niedringhaus / Associated…)
At first glance, it looks as if the Obama administration has executed a sudden turnabout in its attitude toward military intervention in Libya. Two weeks ago, U.S. officials were talking about all the reasons a no-fly zone was a bad idea; now, they're all for it.
In fact, the administration was closely divided all along — torn between a desire to help Libya's rebels overthrow Moammar Kadafi and a fear of getting the United States enmeshed in another messy war in the Muslim world.
The core of the problem, to put it brutally, was that the stakes were too low. In traditional foreign policy terms, whether Kadafi won or lost didn't directly affect U.S. interests. We've lived with Kadafi's rule for four decades, and even treated him as something of an ally in the fight against Al Qaeda since 2003. So while President Obama and his aides were rooting for the rebels to win, they weren't willing to lend them the U.S. Air Force to make sure it happened.
Photos: U.S., allies launch attacks in Libya
The dilemma of "humanitarian intervention" is not a new one; in fact, it's been one of the central problems of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. In 1992, then-President George H.W. Bush sent U.S. troops to protect a humanitarian aid mission during a civil war in Somalia, and quickly wished he hadn't. In 1994, then-President Clinton didn't send U.S. troops to stop a genocide in Rwanda, and quickly wished he had. There's no easy answer.
In this case, the Obama administration divided into predictable factions. The human rights camp said something had to be done or the cause of Arab democracy would suffer a terrible setback and civilians would be massacred. The military experts warned that a no-fly zone was harder than it looked, didn't guarantee a successful outcome and would tax already overstretched U.S. forces. The Middle East wonks said it was essential to get support from other Arab countries first, lest any action become a Western intervention that would galvanize anti-U.S. opinion.
In discussions that one participant described as painful, the administration grappled its way to a position: The United States would participate in a military intervention only if others took the lead and the United Nations Security Council blessed it.
Even as the administration reached its decision, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron took on the challenge of getting a resolution from the Security Council — and, more important, accepted leading roles in any military action. In an unexpected bonus, the Arab League voted to endorse a no-fly zone, eliminating the fear of local backlash against foreign intervention.
The resolution that resulted is a surprisingly muscular, expandable mandate. It doesn't just call for a no-fly zone; it authorizes attacks on Libyan army vehicles and artillery on the ground. It focuses on preventing a humanitarian disaster, but it also calls for "the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution."
And in their statements, supporters of the no-fly zone went well beyond the resolution's language, making it clear that their goal is to make sure Kadafi falls.
On Thursday, even before the Security Council voted, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton revealed herself to be one of the administration's hawks, telling a town meeting in Tunis, "Kadafi must go."
"We know that there is no good choice here," she added. "If you don't try to take him out, if you don't support the opposition, and he stays in power, you cannot predict what he will do."
So now a U.N.-blessed coalition, led by France and Britain, will intervene in Libya's civil war. It will include the United States but also Arab countries; diplomats say United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. There are reports that neighboring Egypt has quietly begun trucking weapons and ammunition across its western border to the rebel capital of Benghazi; military advisors may follow.
Plenty of questions remain. Will the foreign airstrikes be enough to stop Kadafi from marching on Benghazi? (His regime proposed a cease-fire only hours after the Security Council resolution was approved, showing that mere warnings can be effective if they're believable enough.)
Will the airstrikes go beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone, which military experts say can be done with minimal risk, to include more dangerous, low-altitude attacks? Can the new Western-Arab coalition induce Kadafi to step down, or enable the rebels to win, or will it merely guarantee a stalemate and a long civil war? And, in that case, will pressure mount for deeper involvement, including by the United States?
On that count, the voices for caution are still right: Once a president commits himself to the principle that Kadafi must go, it's difficult to back down until Kadafi is gone.
But that may not be up to us. Americans and the rest of the world have gotten used to seeing the United States take the lead role when the United Nations or NATO calls for foreign military intervention, but this time we are not fully in charge.
The arrangement, if successful, could lead to a new model in which the United States doesn't have to command every campaign and lead every charge. And that would be as important, in its own way, as removing Kadafi.