Ready for another war? Congressional leaders push for U.S. action in Libya

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With the Obama administration hesitating to take definitive action in Libya, a bipartisan group of congressional leaders are pushing to impose a no-fly zone to protect civilians and rebels from Muammar Gaddafi’s air force — a decision experts say would amount to an act of war.

“The people of Libya are not asking for foreign troops on the ground,” Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “I believe that the global community cannot be on the sidelines while airplanes are allowed to bomb and strafe. A no-fly-zone is not a long-term proposition, assuming the outcome is what we all desire, and I believe we ought to be ready to implement it as necessary.”

John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, echoed his colleague.

“We could neutralize Libyan air defenses and set up a no-fly zone,” McCain said Thursday standing next to his long-time ally Joe Lieberman, who added a moral argument for intervention.

Congress has already taken steps in that direction. On March 1 the Senate passed a non-binding resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya.

The chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Florida Republican Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers have also expressed a desire to impose a no-fly zone.

But the administration remains reluctant to take those steps, and many are wary of potentially entering into another war.

“If we move additional assets, what are the consequences of that for Afghanistan, for the Persian Gulf?” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday. “And what other allies are prepared to work with us in some of these things? Those are some of the effects that we have to think about. And we also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East.”

Former undersecretary of defense during the first Bush administration, Jed Babbin, echoed Gates’s points, saying the imposition of a no-fly zone would be an irresponsible act of war against Libya.

“To establish a no-fly zone what you have to do is prevent the other guy from operating his air forces.” Babbin told TheDC. “The rights of a sovereign nation are to operate its military, commerce, govern the people etc. when you infringe, limit, cancel one of those primary functions of the sovereign, that is an act of war,” — a war, Babbin added, that is not one worth a single American life.

Hillel Fradkin, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told TheDC that while instituting a no-fly zone over the country would be a de facto declaration of war against Libya, there is a chance, though slim, that no shots would even be fired.

“There would be the prospect, given the current state of affairs on the ground, of establishing a no-fly zone over the territory that is now held by the rebel forces,” He said. “We might simply declare there is a no-fly zone and see what happens, it could be the case that Libyan pilots might not go to the sky.”

According to Babbin, even without much action the task would not be an easy one, as the resources needed to enforce a no-fly zone would require a hefty deployment of resources, which are already stretched thin.

“What we’d have to do for a no-fly zone is to devote an enormous amount of our air resources to accomplish it,” Babbin said. “If we do this, No. 1, we would be risking American lives unjustifiably, and No. 2, we would be risking American lives elsewhere because we would have to rob air assets from Afghanistan and other hot spots. This is not a trivial deal.”

Retired Rear Admiral Michael R. Groothousen explained, from a military perspective, that an operation such as the one proposed would be “huge.”

“The supply line to get the operation up and running would take at an absolute bare minimum of two aircraft carriers and I still think you need Air Force involvement so you’d have to get Air Force fighters closer to Libya — either Sigonella [Sicily] or Crete or somewhere else. First, however, that country would have to allow us to fly out of our bases there to do something that is technically an act of war,” Groothousen told TheDC.

Fradkin added that the question that the administration must answer before doing anything is: What do they hope to achieve?

“Once you’ve undertaken such an action you presumably have to state what your objectives are and you need those objectives in order to design the military action you are undertaking,” he said. “If the no-fly zones don’t achieve [your objectives] are you prepared to take further military steps?”

All this prompted defense journalist Thomas E. Ricks to ask the question many will wonder about as the conflict progresses:

“Do we want to go to war with Gaddafi?”

President Obama has not tipped his hat either way. Thursday, at a joint press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Obama said that he is keeping his options open.

“We are looking at every option that is out there, in addition to the non-military actions that we have taken.”