Read more of Slate's coverage of the Libya conflict.
And so, at last, it's on.
After weeks of pressure for a no-fly zone over Libya, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on Thursday allowing that and much more.
On Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama announced that, in cooperation with the European Union and the Arab League, the United States will enforce that resolution.
The U.N. resolution, which was approved by a 10-0 vote (with five abstentions), authorizes member states "to take all necessary measures"—including, but not limited to, a no-fly zone—"to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi."
These documents are written very carefully, so the language is worth parsing. It authorizes military action to protect not only Libyan "civilians" (a potential loophole, since one could argue that the rebel forces fighting to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi are no longer civilians but rather combatants in a civil war) but also "civilian populated areas."
In the event that Qaddafi were to try to evade the resolution by announcing a cease-fire—as indeed his Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa did immediately after the resolution's passage—the resolution authorizes military action to protect areas that are not only under attack but "under threat of attack." And to pre-empt further evasions or arguments, the resolution notes that these threatened areas include Benghazi, the last major rebel-held city, whose residents Qaddafi has threatened to kill in a door-to-door rampage.
In short, this is about as tough and tight as U.N. resolutions get.
In his televised announcement this afternoon, President Obama said that Qaddafi would have to stop advancing his troops on Benghazi; withdraw his troops from other Libyan cities that he's taken through force; and restore gas, water, and electricity to those cities, while at the same time allowing humanitarian groups to bring in supplies. If Qaddafi does not do all of those things, Obama said, the "international community" will enforce the U.N. resolution "through military action."
The only measure that the resolution excludes is the deployment of "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." The Libyan rebels have said they want no such force, few if any foreign governments are inclined to send one, and Obama clarified today that he would not order any ground troops to Libya. Still, it's good to have the restriction stated explicitly, in order to avert a) the most slippery slope of escalation and b) charges (and not just from Qaddafi) that the U.N. action is a cover for Western imperialism.
On that point, it is significant that the United Nations measure was preceded—and probably triggered—by the Arab League's unanimous endorsement of a no-fly zone five days earlier. Once that event took place, it became nearly impossible for Russia or China—which had spoken against any military action—to veto the measure in the Security Council. (They merely abstained, as did Germany, India, and Brazil, though the latter three countries have no veto power; they could have voted "no" without affecting the outcome.)
Obama has insisted, from the outset of this crisis, that the Arab League would have to lead the way toward a solution, at least publicly. (We don't yet know whether, or to what extent, U.S. diplomats applied pressure to get the league's remarkably unanimous vote.) Many stateside critics have called on Obama to take action unilaterally, as if his reticence were a sign of weakness or misplaced political correctness. One might argue that he could, or should, have pushed more quickly for this diplomatic outcome. But whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, the results—good, bad, or both—will be more legitimate, and thus more effective and enduring, than if the United States, or even the West, had gone in on its own.
It's also a good thing that Britain and France are taking the lead in sending in combat planes—or at least making the most upright statements while doing so. Their interests in Libya, however defined, are more vital than ours. And since the end of the Cold War, we have been waiting for the Europeans to assume more of our common military burdens. This could be the moment when the alliance becomes more truly balanced.
So, what can this array of U.S., European, and Arab air forces do? Quite a lot.
The French and British have already sent Tornado and Typhoon warplanes to the area. Both models are multipurpose planes, equipped with guns and missiles to shoot other planes out of the sky, as well as "smart bombs" (laser-guided munitions and GPS-guided JDAMs) to hit targets on the ground.
The Saudi and Egyptian air forces are similarly armed, mainly with F-16s and other planes that the United States has sold or given them over the years. It's now time for them to step up and take action in their own interests rather than let others carry the burden and, if things go badly, the blame.