Obama's No-Fly Zone Dilemma

In 2008, he said he'd intervene if there was a "moral obligation." Does Libya qualify?

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It's crunch time in the Oval Office today. As foreign policy hawks urge President Obama to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, the president is gathering his top advisers to coordinate a game plan this afternoon. Thus far, the administration's position has been unclear. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Sky News the U.S. will vote in favor of a no-fly zone at the UN but will not lead such an effort. The AP is calling the decision the "sternest test yet of [Obama's] philosophy of humanitarian intervention." On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama said military force was necessary when the U.S. had a "moral obligation" to intervene. Does Libya fit that mold?

Privately, administration officials tell Politico that Obama is determined to avoid a military intervention "even it means being labeled as weak by Republicans."

“History has shown that when you rush into these things, you get it wrong," an administration official tells Politico. "We’re not going to rush no matter what anyone says.”

Imposing a no-fly zone over Libya has been a hotly-contested subject in the past few weeks. Some foreign policy experts, like Thomas Ricks, have argued forcefully against it. Ricks notes that imposing a no-fly zone is technically an "act of war" that involves bombing Libya's radar and communications systems, missile batteries and anti-aircraft weaponry. Is the U.S. really prepared for another war in an Arab country? On top of that, imposing a no-fly zone is a half-measure. "If we are willing to do air strikes, why not go the whole way and use ground troops now to go in and topple a teetering regime? I actually would prefer this option."

On the other hand, Libyan rebels have been vocally supportive of a no-fly zone. Many say Qaddafi believes he can slaughter his way out of this mess. In any event, some say Obama needs to communicate his position clearly regardless of if it is pro or anti-no-fly zone. D.B. Grady makes that argument in The Atlantic today:

If the U.S. is to stay home, the president should explain why he is willing to accept bloodshed that does not intersect with U.S. interests. That might clearly signal to protestors that they should not count on U.S. assistance, and possibly prevent the same massacre that befell the Iraqi Kurds following the Gulf War.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.