Dunsmore: Intervention in Libya

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(HOST) Should the United States intervene militarily on the side of the rebels in Libya? Commentator and veteran ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore examines the arguments.

(DUNSMORE) When lightly armed and untrained protester/rebels are being mowed down by a repressive dictator like Muammar Qaddafi – with his superior military equipment and foreign mercenaries – the normal human instinct is to want to rush to the aid of the underdogs. If you are the world’s recognized #1 super power – not to mention the #1 global symbol of freedom and democracy – the pressure to intervene militarily is enormous.

Hawkish Senators such as Republican John McCain and Independent Joe Lieberman have been beating the drum for a no-fly zone over Libya. But even normally more dovish Democratic Senator John Kerry has called for much the same thing, in order to stop the Libyan Air Force from bombing and strafing the rebels and their makeshift defenses.

But remember, to establish a no-fly zone over Libya would be an act of war. At very least it would involve neutralizing Qaddafi’s air defense systems – and the threat that any of his war planes that violate the no-fly zone air space will be shot down.

This is doable. The question is, would it be wise? As a practical matter, critics of the policy say that most of damage that Qaddafi can inflict upon the rebels from the air is with helicopter gun ships. They are much more difficult to detect and disable than fighter jets and bombers. For the same reason, bombing Libya’s airport runways would have limited impact.

But the more significant questions are not practical but political.  The United States is already at war in the two Muslim countries of Iraq and Afghanistan – three if you count Pakistan.  So before America gets into a shooting war with Libya, a United Nations Security Council resolution of support, with at least Russian and Chinese abstentions, would be highly desirable. if not mandatory. A no-fly zone should have the full backing of the European Union, all members of NATO – and some significant form of Muslim approval, preferably the Arab League.

As the debate over the no-fly zone swirled in world capitals for most of this past week, solidifying such support has proven to be elusive.

Short of direct intervention, the U.S. has worked behind-the-scenes to impose stiff new international sanctions on Libya. It has organized significant humanitarian assistance. American ships and surveillance planes are patrolling off Libya’s shore in the Mediterranean, and this sophisticated weaponry will likely be used to jam Libya’s command and control communications. Inserting a few clandestine units to help in organizing the rebels to defend themselves may be worth considering.

But there are signs that the battle between Qaddafi loyalists and the Libyan rebels is slipping into a protracted struggle. So unless it has broad international support, the last thing America needs is to get trapped in a civil war in another Muslim country. As we have seen far too many times in recent years – at great human and material cost – military interventions are a lot easier to begin than to end.

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