EDITORIAL: No air strikes from the O Force

White House military strategy by armchair commander Daley

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The biggest threat from the civil war in Libya is not rising oil prices but declining U.S. credibility. Since President Obama has publicly taken the rebel side in the struggle, it is important that Moammar Gadhafi lose. Despite that message from the White House, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear Thursday that the Obama administration isn’t ready to make any decisions on taking action. While America dithers, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has come out in support of air strikes to support the Libyan opposition. It’s a sad (but no longer rare) day in world affairs when more spine is shown in Paris than Washington.

Policymakers are debating whether outside intervention is necessary, and if so, what form it should take. As usual, the Obama administration refuses to show any global leadership. On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley chastised advocates of the use of force. “Lots of people throw around phrases of ‘no-fly zone’ and they talk about it as though it’s just a game, a video game or something,” he chirped. “Some people who throw that line out have no idea what they’re talking about.” Of course, why the Chicago lawyer has any credibility discussing military air operations is anybody’s guess.

Col. Gadhafi’s air force can be a decisive factor in this type of war. Rebel forces moving along the desert highways between cities are highly vulnerable to air strikes. Their lines of supply and communication are subject to air interdiction, which may be particularly effective against an untrained, disorganized rebel force with no operational experience. Air superiority would assist Col. Gadhafi in conducting offensive operations once he begins his drive east to retake the country.

Intervention using the air option makes a great deal of sense because it’s the quickest and most cost-effective way to level the playing field. Other courses of action to deal with the regime’s air threat - such as supplying the rebels with sophisticated anti-air weapons - would be a mistake since there is no way of knowing in whose hands those weapons might fall.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, have put bipartisan support behind instituting a no-fly zone over Libya. Some Arab states also have backed this proposal, while America and various NATO countries are examining its feasibility. Declaring a no-fly zone is easy, but enforcing it is more difficult. Yet while all military operations carry a degree of risk, some are less risky than others. In this case, the challenge would be whether American or coalition air and naval assets could intimidate Col. Gadhafi’s air force or, if necessary, destroy it. In this respect, the history of comparable engagements - such as the June 1982 Israeli/Syrian air war, or even previous U.S. encounters with Libyan aircraft - suggest it would be suicidal for Libyan pilots to challenge U.S. or NATO air supremacy.

The United States could always do nothing and see how the war sorts out. But as the 1992-1995 Bosnian civil war demonstrated, sitting on the sidelines means accepting an inevitable humanitarian crisis and having no influence over the outcome of the struggle. The other lesson of that war, however, was that NATO air strikes, when they finally came in 1995, were decisive in ending the conflict.

Failure to take some kind of action widens Mr. Obama’s credibility gap. It’s easy to make sweeping policy declarations regarding the necessity of Col. Gadhafi’s departure, but harder to make it happen. The Obama administration has developed a reputation for not being able to close the gap between rhetoric and results. Libya may be another case where Mr. Obama simply lacks the right stuff.

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