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.
The United States has had AWACS radar planes circling high over Libya for some time now, as well as many fighter, attack, and reconnaissance planes situated on NATO bases and aircraft carriers in the area.
Which country does what is not yet known. Presumably the military commands are sorting that out now, if they haven't already. It's interesting that Obama said today that U.S. forces will be "part of [he stressed that phrase] an international coalition ... enabling" the Europeans and Arabs to enforce the no-fly zone.
U.S. AWACS and other aircraft can keep track of all movements in the sky and on the ground; they can also communicate this information to other units and coordinate a counterattack. Is Obama suggesting that this is all the U.S. forces will do—that it's up to the Europeans and Arabs to shoot down Libyan planes, if things come to that? Does his emphasis on the procedures of a no-fly zone suggest that U.S. planes, which have superior air-to-ground radar, might take a more active role if the mission expands beyond merely warning or shooting down Qaddafi's airplanes and helicopters? We'll see.
(The private research group GlobalSecurity.org has posted a map on its Web site, showing the location of nearby bases and ships and how, as pure speculation, the U.S., European, and Arab air forces could split their operations into separate but coordinated theaters.)
However the effort is divided, U.S. planes will be in the sky, and will be part of the war, whatever their precise role in it. The rules of engagement for the entire allied effort—what Libyan actions would trigger what U.S., European, or Arab responses—must also be laid out ahead of time, to avoid confusion or ambiguity on all sides.
Last week, before the U.N. resolution, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates publicly said that a no-fly zone would have to be preceded by airstrikes against Libyan radar sites, so our planes wouldn't be shot down. That is one option but not the only one. In Iraq, during the 12 years between the wars, U.S. planes bombed these sites as soon as Saddam's anti-air crews turned on their radar. (Electronic-warfare gear onboard the planes could detect—and specially designed missiles could home in on—the radar's emissions.)
But again, the current U.N. resolution calls for more than a mere no-fly zone, and there are precedents here, too. In the 1990s, when a no-fly zone proved inadequate to protect Shiites in southern Iraq from attacks by Saddam's forces, President Bill Clinton expanded the effort to a "no-drive zone" as well. The movement of all military vehicles, on the ground and in the air, was banned—and the ban was enforced on several occasions.
Still, the question remains: What now?
The hope may be that the resolution's passage, and the current preparations to enforce it, would be enough to make Qaddafi crumble. But, as the saying goes, hope is not a strategy. At this point, if the fighting continues, Obama, the Europeans, and—presumably—the Arab League forces will have no choice but to respond, and not just to shoot down planes but to attack (from the air) Qaddafi's airfields, weapons, and maybe troops on the ground.
At that point, we would be intervening in an Arab civil war. This would be done in a putatively humanitarian mission, under the authority of a U.N. resolution, with (perhaps merely in support of) other Arab countries in the region—but it's still intervening in an Arab civil war, and this is the sort of thing that makes senior U.S. military officers nervous.
How will it go? In a tactical sense, probably pretty well. U.S., European, and even Arab air forces are very capable of pummeling Qaddafi's army and air force if they want to do so.
Where will it end? That's a different question. Will Libya bog down in a protracted civil war or into mutually hostile regions? Will Qaddafi hang on to power? If he crumbles, who will take over, and what will that person or family or tribe or faction do—and with what resources or institutions to mobilize the population, inspire their allegiance, and rebuild?
I suspect that these sorts of questions are among the many things that inspired Obama to insist on the Arab League's involvement—and at least the appearance of its leadership—from the get-go. He knows that the United States is not going to run nation-building in Libya. We wouldn't know how, we don't have the money, and most likely nobody there would want us to do it. We'll help if asked, but even then, only in a supporting role. It was important to make this clear from the beginning—and not get trapped in another situation where, because we led the way in fighting the war, we're expected to assume all the costs and risks of making the peace.
Obama repeated the point today that he's made several times: "Change in the region cannot, and will not, be imposed by the United States or any foreign power." That goes for any military campaign to help goose along the change, too.