One of the nice things in life is to have friends smarter than yourself. Over the weekend I had a long discussion with several of them about Libya, and came away persuaded that we need to do something in Libya, though probably not imposing a no-fly zone.
I think President Obama needs to sit down his defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff today and look each of them in the eye and then say this:
Don't tell me what I can't do in Libya. Tell me what you can do. Give me a list of options. And give them to me within 24 hours, because push may be coming to shove, and I don't want to see Qaddafi prevail. As Michael Singh warns, 'inaction also has its consequences.' Because why? Because we don't want to the lesson to Arab autocrats to be that all you need to do is shoot up the rebels and the West will turn tail. Also, Qaddafi may be regretting giving up his WMDs right now. We don't want the lesson for other bad actors to be that he should have held on to them.
To help the president nudge the JCS in the ensuing discussion, here are the options he should ask to be put on his desk:
1. Best option: Give the Libyan rebels the aid they need to win. This may be no more than some secure communications gear and a couple of thousand rocket-propelled grenades to deter Qaddafi's tanks and SUVs. (This may be already happening in some form.) Can we start flying discreet charter flights of stuff into some airports in the east? This needs to be ready to go ASAP -- like yesterday.
2. More aggressive, riskier option: It is not in the interests of the United States, or the Libyan people, to see Qaddafi put down the rebels. So if Option 1 doesn't work, what more do we need to do? I think here we want to think about direct action: Using Special Operations troops to corner and then capture or (if he insists) kill Col. Qaddafi. You do need tactical air on tap for this, both to finish off Qaddafi if he holes up and also to cover the extraction helicopters. This needs to be ready to kick off in 72 hours.
3. Third: And yeah, sure, let's look at what a no-fly zone would look like. This is my least favorite option, because it is a half measure -- which by definition is an act that is enough to get us involved but by itself is not enough to promise to determine the outcome. Still, is there any way to do it quickly and with less risk? I've heard things like stating "you fly, you die," and not conducting extensive air strikes, just popping whoever flies. I am doubtful of this. Sen. Kerry's simplistic "cratering" of runways is a non-starter -- it is very easy to quickly fill in holes. Imposition of an American-led no-fly zone effectively would be a promise to the Libyan people, and it should not be an empty promise that allows Qaddafi to get aircraft in the air even occasionally to bomb rebellious cities. But it might be worthwhile to throw up a no-fly zone if only as a cover for Option 2, because it would have the effect of throwing sand in Qaddafi's eyes. So the NFZ also needs to be ready to go in 72 hours.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.