ANALYSIS: Thirty seconds over Tripoli —Harlan Ullman - Thursday, March 10, 2011

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As much as the outside world wants Qaddafi gone and the killing stopped, the only practical solution may be covert aid to the rebels. Here, the Afghanistan model could also apply. In supporting the rebels, who knows what might follow

“A mind is a terrible thing to lose,” Vice President Dan Quayle once Malapropped in a mistaken reference to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’s slogan that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. But Quayle’s remark applies to the US debate about whether or not to impose a “no-fly zone” over Libya and perhaps dislodge Muammar al-Qaddafi from his throne.

Does no one recall even recent history?

In the pre-dawn hours of April 15th, 1986, then President Ronald Reagan ordered a retaliatory strike against Libya after its agents had bombed a West Berlin nightclub, La Belle, killing and wounding American servicemen. Forty-five strike aircraft from three US aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and from Lakenheath Air Force Base in England made simultaneous attacks on military targets in Libya. The raid, called El Dorado Canyon, did little real military damage even though Qaddafi barely missed being killed as, doubtlessly, he was a prime target.

Collateral damage was also slight. But in a media frenzy, the impact was hyped. Qaddafi claimed an adopted infant daughter was killed — still very much in question. The French embassy was almost hit, giving then Prime Minister Jacques Chirac further reason to condemn the attack and along with Spain and Portugal, deny overflight rights for the English-based F-111s. US public opinion overwhelmingly supported Reagan. Aside from Margaret Thatcher, international reaction was predictably negative.

Qaddafi is a villain. The sooner he is gone, the better the world will be. However, removing him is not easy. And he likes revenge.

After El Dorado Canyon, Qaddafi organised the blowing up of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland in 1988. Failure to remove Qaddafi now could easily provoke future acts of terror and greater support of extremists. We should not forget that history. Nor should we be deterred by it.

US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen have cautioned that establishing an effective no-fly zone over Libya is a complex operation. Libyan air defences would have to be eliminated. Then, a continuous air presence requiring substantial numbers of aircraft would be needed. Further, there is no guarantee that such action would prevent Qaddafi from using his ground forces and artillery rather than an air force perhaps more likely to defect than to fight the rebels. And would helicopters be included in a no-fly regime unlike after the first Gulf War in Iraq in 1991 when Saddam Hussein used them to put down the Shia uprising?

If one is to kill the king, make certain the king is killed. That would require targeting Qaddafi and/or deploying friendly ground forces to ensure the Libyan army was defeated or neutralised. With Qaddafi gone, who would rule in his stead, as opposition leaders are not well known to and by the west? And given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both the US and its NATO allies are already overstretched if a third ground war was to be declared.

Kosovo also is an important reminder about deposing dictators. In the spring of 1999, concurrent with a NATO summit in Washington celebrating the alliance’s 50th anniversary (and the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinski affair), a bombing campaign to force Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to stop the killing of Kosovars was to last 78 days. The only reason Milosevic capitulated was because ground intervention was finally threatened, an action that if taken on day one most likely would have ended the campaign then and there.

If the civilised world wants Qaddafi gone — and the arguments are powerful — three steps are essential. First, force sufficient to ensure his rule ends is mandatory, meaning the use of ground forces, at a minimum, is credibly threatened. A no-fly zone cannot guarantee that outcome and could provoke more loss of life as well as terrorist retaliation a la Lockerbie. Second, a follow-on leadership regime, including an EU, UN or other mandate to help that transition, must be on hand. Last, unlike the second Iraq war, plans and resources to ensure Libya moves to a pluralistic political system under the rule of law have to be in place.

Short of those efforts, a no-fly zone, while representing the outrage of the west and civilised peoples, will be a placebo not a cure for Qaddafi. As much as the outside world wants Qaddafi gone and the killing stopped, the only practical solution may be covert aid to the rebels. Here, the Afghanistan model could also apply. In supporting the mujahideen, the Taliban were created. In supporting the rebels, who knows what might follow.

The situation is agonising. If we were not already engaged in two wars, perhaps things would be different. Tragically, they are not.

The writer is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council

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