April 12, 2011
In mid-April, with no resolution to Libya’s month-long civil war in sight, the African Union announced a cease-fire proposal enthusiastically endorsed by Muammar Qaddafi’s supporters.
Libya’s rebel leaders promptly rejected the proposal. The proposed truce cynically called for talks between the factions and an end to air operations defending Libyan citizens—but did not call for Qaddafi to step down.
In addition to being a murderous thug and longtime supporter of international terrorism, Qaddafi is also a master manipulator and survivalist. He has clung to power in Libya for 41 years, mostly as an international pariah. After promising to ruthlessly murder his opposition this spring—and very nearly succeeding—the only solution now is to remove him from power.
The US is not a neutral party in this issue, and it is useful to recount some of the lowlights from four decades of American “relations” with Qaddafi.
June 11, 1970: The Air Force shuts down Wheelus Air Base, near Tripoli, after Qaddafi spent his first year as Libya’s dictator ordering the US base closed and harassing its occupants. At one point near the end, Qaddafi was involved in an Old West-style standoff with then-Col. Chappie James, the base commander, who had to tell Qaddafi to take his hand off his gun.
Aug. 19, 1981: After Qaddafi declares portions of the Mediterranean Sea as Libyan territory, President Reagan orders the Navy to patrol the Gulf of Sidra. A Libyan Su-22 fires a missile at patrolling Navy F-14s, and two Tomcats (one carrying Vice Adm. David J. Venlet, now director of the F-35 program) shoot down two Su-22s.
April 5, 1986: The Libyan government orchestrates the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub packed with US servicemen. The explosion kills three and injures more than 200, including 79 American troops. Nine days later, Reagan orders Operation Eldorado Canyon, a massive air raid against Libyan military facilities, command and control elements, and suspected terror training sites.
Dec. 21, 1988: A bomb rips through Pan Am Flight 103, destroying the aircraft above Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 aboard the aircraft are killed, as are 11 people on the ground hit by the falling wreckage. After a painstaking investigation, the attack is eventually traced back to Qaddafi’s Libya.
Jan. 4, 1989: In another Gulf of Sidra incident, two Libyan MiG-23s race toward the Navy’s aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy in international waters. A pair of F-14s turn away the MiGs four times, but on the fifth and closest approach, the Tomcats shoot down the two missile-armed MiGs.
Aug. 20, 2009: Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al Megrahi is released from prison in Scotland on “compassionate grounds,” supposedly with less than three months to live. He served less than nine years of a life sentence. Megrahi is feted with a hero’s welcome upon his return to Libya, where he lives to this day.
March 17, 2011: “The matter has been decided. … We are coming,” Qaddafi says as his forces close in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. He vows “no mercy or compassion” toward those who resist him, saying his forces will go door to door to punish his enemies. The NATO air campaign begins two days later.
“There needs to be a transition that reflects the will of the Libyan people and the departure of Qaddafi from power—and from Libya,” said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. NATO is defending Libya’s citizens and enforcing a no-fly zone, relying heavily on Air Force enablers. This is not enough.
Qaddafi has proved two things during his four-decade reign of terror: (1) He will not be contained, and (2) he knows how to stay in power. Continued stalemate could lead to a divided Libya partly under Qaddafi’s control, partly held by the rebels.
Whether it is leading a decisive action or an open-ended air blockade, the Air Force will be there: It alone has the intelligence, battle management, refueling, and precision attack capabilities needed to make an effective air operation possible.
A no-fly zone over Libya might seem simple enough, but this “solution” could be a disaster for the Air Force, which would be left holding the bag. Think back to the most famous US no-fly zones, over Iraq.
Operations Northern and Southern Watch defended Iraq’s minorities from attack by Saddam Hussein but consumed billions of dollars, required hundreds of thousands of sorties, endured thousands of Iraqi missile and anti-aircraft artillery attacks, and forced hundreds of Air Force counterattacks against Iraq’s air defenses, radars, and C2 elements.
The no-fly zones were supposed to be temporary, but lasted for 12 years—only ending with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. They were the worst of both worlds: a dead-serious mission against a foe intent on shooting down a US aircraft, but consisting mostly of uneventful flights that degraded skills and wore out equipment.
Without assertive action, the situation in Libya could easily wind up the same, and the Air Force cannot afford another permanent combat mission. Since the no-fly zones began, neither side has shown a decisive advantage. The US, NATO, Arab League, and other supporters therefore need to arm the rebels and have special operators work closely with them to coordinate movement and direct air strikes.
Qaddafi’s forces, C2, and creature comforts need to be targeted and quickly destroyed. The Air Force’s strike aircraft have gone home to Europe, but they can easily be recalled.
Like it or not, the US is now committed and must lead the rebels to victory. Thus far, however, others have taken the lead for various political, diplomatic, and military reasons.
Unfortunately, NATO has never had the will to lead a war without American leadership, and the Arab League has been ambivalent about the mission from the outset. UN Security Council Resolution #1973 calls for “a peaceful and sustainable solution” to Libya’s civil war.
There is only one peaceful and sustainable solution. If Qaddafi stays in power, history shows he will eventually go after all those who opposed him.