This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Today – as Barack Obama announced Monday – the United States hands off the war in Libya to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It will be hard to tell the difference.
NATO isn’t exactly a third party. The U.S. military is the muscle of the alliance, and NATO can’t reduce Moammar Gadhafi’s armed forces from the air without American support.
The Air Force and Navy provide essential surveillance, targeting, transport, drone, electronic warfare and aerial refueling capacity. American pilots will remain in the battle in a very big way. The Air Force has recently deployed C-130 gunships and A-1 “Warthog” attack aircraft in Libya – slow-moving, low-flying warplanes that have devastating firepower and can target Libyan forces dug into cities.
Meet the new intervention, same as the old intervention. But as Obama argued persuasively Monday, labels like “NATO” and “U.N. Security Council” and “Arab League” mean a lot in an operation like this.
It’s a blessed relief to see Britain and France – France, especially – stepping up to a military leadership role that has frequently been punted to the United States, which then gets the blame and the bill for whatever goes wrong.
France has been most aggressive in seeking to overthrow Gadhafi by military means; it has recognized the rebels as a legitimate government and wants to arm them directly, not just enforce a no-fly zone. British Prime Minister David Cameron sounds almost as bellicose.
For Gadhafi, the Lockerbie bombing and his numerous other atrocities have come home to roost. With the Arab League and African leaders having turned on him, he’s discovered how friendless he really is.
The problem now is to get rid of him without violating the international mandate U.S. diplomacy painstakingly helped put in place. The Security Council has authorized the use of force to save the lives of civilians in Libya but not to overthrow the dictatorship. But as Obama noted Monday, “Gadhafi has not yet stepped down from power, and until he does, Libya will remain dangerous.”
The international sanctions now in effect don’t look promising; in the past, any number of despots have clung to power in the face of similar measures – often by shifting the pain to ordinary people.
The French favor reading the Security Council resolution as broadly as possible: Do everything short of putting troops on the ground or targeting Gadhafi personally. The gunships and A-10s suggest that Obama has something similar in mind.
If the demolition or revolt of Libya’s armed forces just happens to result in Gadhafi’s departure, problem solved.