Yesterday, the U.N. Security Council voted to authorize military action in Libya in order to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” It’s important to understand, though, that the resolution does much more than simply authorize a “no fly zone,” a term I think many people might mistake for something that doesn’t involve much violence. As national security law expert Robert Chesney points out:
This authorizes whatever force is needed to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas,” not just to impose a no-fly zone. Only the introduction of a “foreign occupation force” is excluded. Of course, just what counts as sufficiently related to protection of civilians is subject to debate. But in any event, this authority certainly would extend to the use of air power against ground forces advancing on Benghazi, to give the most pressing example. And to be clear, it does not actually exclude the use of ground forces; it only excludes “occupation forces,” which is not co-extensive with ground forces in general.
So, despite what you may have heard, what the U.S. is getting involved in here may ultimately become a much more significant commitment than it might seem at first glance. Indeed, fear of international action seems to have pushed Gaddafi in backing off a bit, at least for now.
While I’m still skeptical that getting involved in a Libyan civil war is the right idea, I think the administration did the right thing by ensuring that more of the regional players would be involved, so this would not be just another unilateral American military intervention in a Muslim country. The Arab League and Organization of the Islamic Conference have requested international help on behalf of the rebels, so this is pretty much the opposite of President George W. Bush’s meager “coalition of the willing” prior to the invasion of Iraq. The rebels defeating Moammar Gaddafi on their own was always going to be the more preferable outcome; the administration seems to have decided that his return to power would be far worse than the status quo ante.
The problem is that we still don’t know very much about who the rebels are or what they ultimately want. Libya’s internal politics were opaque to the West even before the war. We don’t know how much international involvement will be required to ensure Gaddafi falls, or what level of commitment the United States, as the world’s only superpower, will ultimately be forced to make. In other words, none of the key questions looming over the crisis have been answered — even though we’ve already learned the hard way in Iraq what happens when we fail to plan for the peace before we start a war. All we really know right now is that America is destined to own the outcome in Libya.