Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and the man behind the popular political blog "The Washington Note", and Fred Kaplan, "War Stories" columnist at Slate and a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, discussed how the U.N. Security Council voted to authorize military action to protect civilians in Libya.
Yesterday, after Colonel Moammar Gadhafi threatened to "have no mercy" on rebels in the city of Benghazi, the United Nations Security Council took the first step toward making the crisis in Libya an international conflict, voting to impose a no-fly zone in the country and authorizing "all necessary measures" to protect civilians.
Hours after the vote, the Libyan government announced a cease-fire, publicly freezing their military operations. That's provided little comfort to the rest of the world; so far, it has been difficult for governments and news organizations to confirm whether Gadhafi's forces are indeed abiding by the order.
Steve Clemons echoed these concerns, fearing that the cease-fire may just be a delay tactic.
I think Gadhafi is a smart guy. He's got his lunatic image, but he's got a smart, savvy way in which the real story of Libya right now, which is not a good one, is the comeback of Gadhafi. He was pushed to the edge and he demonstrated an ability to kind of roll back. Part of that is because the opposition is under-equipped, but now he's doing exactly what [his son] said they would do, which is to draw out a civil war and set up a line. We'll have to see how supporters in the Arab world resource the opposition to him, but he's buying time.
Fred Kaplan agreed with Clemons' assessment, but doubted that Gadhafi's temporary draw-down would make any difference in the long run.
Buying time works against him in this new context as well. Setting up a no-fly zone, that's going to take a little bit of time...Also, I don't think rebels are just going to sit there and accept that there's going to be some de facto line of demarcation beyond which they won't plow any further to the west. Firing will commence one way or another, and the Libyan troops will fire back, and the powers authorized by the U.N. can do what they will be coming to do.
Which raises the question: is the Libya no-fly zone merely a preamble to war, as it was in Iraq?
Clemons said that the perceived efficacy of a no-fly zone shows that many expect it to be little more than a gesture in advance of action.
This is now a direct, full-scale intervention. The no-fly zone, I think even from the beginning it was clear, was going to essentially be a slippery slope into other things...It was always a fake debate, a fake issue in the sense that it would not matter on the ground, it would not change the equation, and it was always going to be in this direction.
If Clemons is correct, the parallels with U.S. involvement in Iraq are obvious. According to Fred Kaplan, the no-fly zone in Iraq precipitated heightened conflict precisely because Iraqi forces were backed into a corner. When they finally committed an act of war, it was activating radar on anti-aircraft weapons just to track American planes.
That sort of thing could happen again. The hope would be that the Libyans would just back off, that it would be hard for Gadhafito convince pilots to go up in the air. This authorization is much more than a no-fly zone; it explicitly mentions a no-fly zone, but talks about "all necessary measures."
"And by the way," Kaplan continued, "it's to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack." He said that not only gives U.N. forces broad authority to take military action almost anywhere in Libya so long as civilians are in the area, but also to respond to the threat of violence without any having taken place yet.
The Security Council's resolution comes on the heels of a unanimous vote by the Arab League last week in favor of a Libyan no-fly zone; significant, because it demonstrates a willingness within the Arab world to see international forces intervene.
For all the similarities with escalation in Iraq, the situation today is markedly different when considering the caution exhibited by the U.S. The Obama Administration has been waiting quietly for the rest of the world to respond to the crisis before taking action. That time appears to have arrived; however, Steve Clemons said that even though the Arab and international communities have now endorsed military intervention, that doesn't amount to a blanket assurance of trust for the United States.
Despite some elements of the Libyan opposition calling for a no-fly zone, and the unanimous Arab League vote, nonetheless, just beneath surface is an incredible amount of skepticism, and the view many people have is that the U.S. and the West don't become engaged in serious conflicts and embed in them and then deal with nuances. They deal with it full on and it's very hard to extract once an outcome is achieved—to back off.
For his part, Clemons felt as though there were other opportunities to influence the crisis in Libya without defaulting to the no-fly zone, almost certainly engendering a full-blown war. He specifically suggested that the international community could have instead supplied rebels with weapons, jammed Gadhafi's communications, and fed intelligence to opposition forces. In this case, he said, something like a proxy war might be more effective—and safer for the United States.
These were all ways that could have helped substantially change the facts on the ground, the ability of the opposition to wage this conflict, without having a very large profile Western military footprint, which stills cares me a lot. There's not enough discussion in my view. I do think the opposition needs to get rid of Gadhafi, but there could be some very negative consequences for us.