16 Ways the U.S. Can Help in Libya

From multilateral sanctions to unilateral covert action, here are the options Obama faces


The weekend has come and gone without a decisive outcome in Libya. The see-saw conflict continues, with Qaddafi's tanks barging into Zawiya in the west but losing Ras Lanouf to the rebels in the east. A few people managed to demonstrate in Tripoli Friday, but sprays of automatic weapons fire dispersed them quickly. This is hardly a fair fight. Qaddafi enjoys significant geographic, military, and strategic advantages, which he is exploiting more with every passing day. A lengthy and bloody stalemate remains a distinct possibility.

The Obama administration is weighing its options. We run the risk of remembering this week's events the way some of us remember the shelling of Dubrovnik twenty years ago: a moment when the U.S. and Europe shipped humanitarian relief supplies but their magnificent military instrument, NATO, stood by, watching relatively weak military forces wreck death and destruction on defenseless civilians. President Obama has already said, "What I want to make sure of is that the U.S. has full capacity to act rapidly if the situation deteriorates in such a way that you had a humanitarian crisis on our hands, or a situation in which defenseless civilians were finding themselves trapped and in great danger."

Humanitarian concerns are not the only ones in Libya. Every day the war there continues drains many millions of dollars from the U.S. economy in the form of high oil prices, slowing the recovery. There is no guarantee oil prices won't rise significantly higher, especially if demonstrations continue on the Arabian peninsula and possibly break out in Saudi Arabia. Time is not on our side.

The only objective for which the U.S. will likely consider taking serious risks is the removal of Qaddafi's regime and, hopefully, its replacement with a constitutional, representative government that maintains the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

As Obama meets with his advisers to consider what the U.S. can and cannot do, here are the options he is likely to consider. He will weigh the risks of involvement against the dangers of non-involvement, the efficacy of intervention against the likelihood of backlash, unilateralism against multilateralism, the needs of Libyans against the needs of the U.S. It is a daunting list with many trade-offs and no clear best choice.

Action Under United Nations Authority

(1)  More strictly enforce the financial sanctions already in place. Italy -- and likely other states with close financial ties to Libya -- is not yet enforcing the UN-approved financial sanctions on Libya's sovereign wealth funds. Libyan individuals and front companies who escaped the initial asset freeze could also be targeted. The U.S. could lead a concerted effort to determine where Qaddafi is still getting money from and stop the flow. But this would require convincing states that do not already enforce the sanctions to begin doing so, which may be against their financial self-interest.

(2)  More strictly enforce the arms embargo. .Libya has imported its arms mainly from Russia, Czech Republic, Serbia, and more recently Italy. It is not clear that these and other countries have withdrawn all technicians and stopped all shipments, in particular of spare parts.

(3)  Draw global attention to the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation. The ICC prosecutor did well last week to give a press conference outlining his efforts. He could be encouraged to deploy investigators at least to Benghazi if not closer to Tripoli. The ICC could also set up a website on which Libyans could document abuses. There is a great deal of information coming out via Twitter and other social networks that could be collected more systematically so that it can be properly investigated once on-the-ground access is possible. As the investigation moves forward, it will appear more threatening to Qaddafi, and could act as more of a deterrent.

(4)  Enforce land, sea, and air blockades around Libya. These would enforce the arms and travel bans, in addition to helping to detain individuals being investigated by the ICC. The blockades would also position U.S. and allied forces offshore for further military action, if ever needed.

Jamming and broadcasting. Jamming Libyan military communications would be consistent with the spirit of the existing UN Security Council resolution and could have a substantial effect on Qaddafi's ability to wage war against the rebels along Libya's long Mediterranean coast. We could also begin broadcasting international media outlets into Libya to help spread information and galvanize opposition, as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya did in Egypt.

(6)  Discourage companies from doing business with Libya. They could be made to understand that anything they ship to Qaddafi and his minions now, or any new deals they make, could cause them commercial losses when the regime falls. It is particularly important to talk to the Italian oil and gas company ENI, which is heavily dependent on Libyan supplies and is partly Libyan owned.

(7)  Expand humanitarian assistance and evacuation capacity. The buildup of displaced people and refugees, many of them non-Libyan, on the borders with Tunisia and Egypt is a burden that we can help relieve by expanding shipment of humanitarian assistance and repatriating people more quickly.

Action Under New United Nations Authority

(8)  Many Libyan financial assets in the U.S. have been frozen by sanctions. We could channel those assets to the Transitional Council, the political body that rebels have established as the temporary leadership in the liberated east. Helping to fund the Council could enable it to buy the military equipment it badly needs. However, this would set an unusual precedent -- frozen assets are typically held with the expectation that the original owner could one day reclaim them, rather than simply given away -- that could deter future foreign investment.

(9)  Establish an account to control the money importers pay for Libyan oil and gas revenue. We could ask the UN to create a single account, like the 1995 "oil for food" program that controlled how Iraqi oil revenues could be spent. Libyan oil revenue could also be channeled to the Transitional Council, so long as it stays united and can legitimately claim to represent the Libyan people.

(10)  Allow arms shipments directly to the Transitional Council. UN Security Council resolution 1970, passed only days ago, bans all arms shipments to Libya. Opening a breach in the arms embargo will be difficult, as many Security Council members will not want to set a precedent of allowing arms shipments to a rebellion. But it's worth recalling the Bosnian war, when we turned a blind eye to Iran's clandestine arms shipments to Muslim fighters. There's no telling who could arm the Libyan rebels, but if anyone is going to do it, it might as well be us.

Direct Military Action

(11)  No fly zone (NFZ). This has been extensively debated in the media as well as in Congress. But all sides seem to agree on this: better to do it with approval from the UN Security Council, both because we could use the help and to brand it as a global --- rather than an American -- mission. But this approval could be very tough to get unless circumstances deteriorate dramatically. While an NFZ would unquestionably help the rebellion and hurt Qaddafi, it would also require attacking Libyan air defenses. Keeping the patrols aloft would be an expensive burden, especially if it drags on for weeks or months. This could be especially unappealing to state that wouldn't want to be seen as supporting a U.S. military effort against a Muslim country. Remember how few countries lined up to join us for invading Iraq? Any U.S. military action risks plunging us into war in Libya and and shifting the narrative away from popular uprising to a Western war against the Arab world or against Islam.

(12)  No fly forever. In this less discussed variant on a no fly zone, we could take out the entire Libyan air force, fixed wing and rotary, with carefully targeted air strikes. This would require an initial attack on Libya's air defenses, like the NFZ, but it wouldn't require the same continuing, open-ended commitment. It would probably have to be done unilaterally, however, since discussion in the Security Council would alert Qaddafi's military to the incoming attack and make it harder to find and destroy their aircraft.

(13)  U.S. air support for rebel ground forces. This is the approach we took in both Kosovo and Afghanistan, where indigenous military forces pursued the ground war with U.S. air support. This would involve us deeply in the conflict in Libya and arguably make us morally responsible for the behavior of the Transitional Council ground forces, which may well exact ferocious revenge on Qaddafi's loyalists. It would also require close coordination with an irregular Libyan force that appears loosely organized.

Covert Measures

(14)  Establish a direct channel to Qaddafi and encourage him to leave Libya. While those who want to see Qaddafi held accountable would object, we could open a back door by which he could leave Libya. Zimbabwe and Venezuela are thought to be ready to receive him. The ICC could get him later, as it did with former Liberian President Charles Taylor. But finding him a new (if temporary) home might make Qaddafi more willing to leave. A number of states -- perhaps Chad or Turkey, for example -- may be able to establish intermediaries to help negotiate Qaddafi's flight.

(15)  Provide intelligence to the rebels. Battlefield intelligence could help the rebellion in meeting the challenges posed by Gaddafi's superior firepower and reach. This could include early warning of air and ground strikes.

(16)  Put U.S. special forces into Libya, ready to move against Qaddafi if an opportunity presents itself. This is fraught with risk. The troops could be found out and used to embarrass the U.S. or the rebels. They could be killed or, worse, captured. The Dutch have already been caught with marines in Libya on a mission to evacuate Dutch citizens. But it would enable us to move quickly and decisively to take out Qaddafi if we find a good opportunity or, in extreme cases, if the risks of allowing him to remain simply become too dire.

There is of course a possibility that anything we do will poison the ongoing revolutions in Libya or even throughout the Arab world. Doing nothing is also option. But, with hundreds dying, thousands fleeing, and no peaceful end in sight, nothing may be the riskiest option of all.
Image:Reuters/Kevin Lamarque