After weeks of warning from the Pentagon about the downsides of launching a no-fly zone over Libya, the U.S. and its major European allies declared war on Muammar Gaddafi and his forces holding on to power in the north African nation. NATO surveillance aircraft have been scouring Libya for potential targets for more than a week. Warplanes from the U.S. and other allies, flying from any of several bases in Italy in the region, could begin taking out Libyan air defense sites and tank formations within hours. But U.S. officers suggested that U.S. action might not be imminent, and that other NATO warplanes might strike first, perhaps aided by U.S. cruise missiles from several of six American warships — and a submarine — in the Mediterranean.
On Friday, Gaddafi’s government declared an “immediate ceasefire and stoppage of all military operations” against the rebels. If the words are followed by action — and Libya halts its attacks on opponents — that is likely to freeze the situation on the ground. And that will complicate efforts to force Gaddafi out of power.
The U.N. declaration approved Thursday night proclaimed that the U.N. alliance would halt Gaddafi loyalists from killing those opposed to his rule by “all necessary measures” – a clear warning that air strikes are likely against tanks and other Libyan military assets on the ground. That means the U.S. and its allies are declaring a “no-drive zone” as well as a no-fly zone in contested areas of the country. It might be hard to tell them apart in any opening volley. “A no-fly zone requires certain actions taken to protect the planes and the pilots,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday during a visiting to neighboring Tunisia, “including bombing targets like the Libyan defense systems.”
U.S. firepower has been growing in Gaddafi’s neighborhood in recent days. The attack submarine USS Providence has transited the Suez Canal and is now in the Mediterranean Sea, Navy officers said, as a part of the carrier USS Enterprise strike group (which can carry up to 300 Tomahawks). The carrier remains in the Arabian Sea, but its 45 F-18s could reach Libya with aerial refueling. The Providence lobbed cruise missiles at targets in both Afghanistan and Iraq in the opening years of those wars.
The U.S. role in any military action would be commanded by Adm. Samuel Locklear, chief of U.S. Navy forces in Europe and Africa, from his perch aboard his command vessel, the USS Mount Whitney, now on station in the central Mediterranean. Beyond NATO allies Britain, France and the U.S., Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also might participate in action against Libya. “We’ve been massing in the region for a couple of weeks,” a Navy officer said late Thursday. “We’re ready.”
But Gaddafi also professes to be ready. “Any foreign military act against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea to danger and civilian and military facilities will become targets of Libya’s counterattack,” his government said. “The Mediterranean basin will face danger not just in the short term, but also in the long term.”
President Obama conferred via phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy Thursday night, and they agreed that Libya must immediately comply with the Security Council resolution calling on him to stop attacking the rebels. Obama discussed military options with his National Security Council.
U.S. lawmakers who had pushed the U.S. to enter a third war in a Muslim land hailed the U.N.’s action. “With Gaddafi’s forces moving towards Benghazi, we must immediately work with our friends in the Arab League and in NATO to enforce this resolution and turn the tide before it is too late,” Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a joint statement. “We must also build a bipartisan consensus here at home to support the President in taking the swift and decisive measures necessary to stop Gaddafi.”
The lengthy debate over coming to the aid of the Libyan rebels has left the U.N. alliance with a tougher challenge than if it had acted earlier, when Gaddafi’s forces were on the run. Because he has recaptured much of the territory he lost in recent days – and momentum is clearly on his side – some U.S. officials fear the U.N. action “only guarantees a stalemate.”
A rebel spokesman concurred. “Our demand for a no-fly zone would have been sufficient two weeks ago,” Essam Gheriani told the Washington Post. “Now the need is to hit Gaddafi’s land troops and tanks that are laying siege to Libyan cities and stop their advance toward Benghazi. Time is in his favor, not ours.” While the resolution passed 10 to 0, there were five abstentions, including China, Germany and Russia. That suggests the international community is not united in the Libyan operation, especially if it drags on.
It’s clear there was substantial reluctance to enter this fray inside the Pentagon, a mood made clear in recent weeks by both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the military, as it always does, will salute and carry out whatever orders they are given in the coming hours.
So it was left to outsiders to say publicly what many in uniform can only whisper. Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security, an Army veteran of the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, voiced some of that unease. “It really does seem like we are going to go to war with another country in the Arabic-speaking world. Incredible,” he wrote on his blog Thursday night. “I should be thankful for the broad international coalition we have put together, and for the fact that a large ground invasion is unlikely, but I mainly just have a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach.”