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Four options for U.S. military action in Libya.

As Americans became transfixed by the violence and chaos in Libya, calls for U.S. military action arose across the political spectrum. Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, among others, advocated the creation of a no-fly zone and arming anti-government forces. Meanwhile, opponents of military action have warned that the use of force is almost never as easy, quick, or cheap as it first appears; Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and U.S. Central Command’s General James Mattis have noted that even establishing a no-fly zone would be difficult and dangerous. Weighing in on the debate, the Arab League last week rejected any foreign intervention, whether by Arab states or other nations, including the United States. 

Amid this debate, whether the U.S. decides to undertake military action will depend on many factors, including what moves Qaddafi makes next, whether Arab governments endorse foreign assistance, and, critically, whether the political, economic, and military costs of action would exceed those of inaction. But, if the United States decides to take action, what is it likely to do? There are four intervention options the Obama administration would likely choose from among, depending on the circumstances and goals at the time. 

Invasion. The most extreme option would be a full-scale invasion to remove Qaddafi and his regime. While this would be the most likely option to have the desired effect of ending the dictatorship, its extensive costs, including the possible loss of U.S. life, mean that it would likely only be considered if circumstances in Libya becomes more severe—if, for instance, Qaddafi uses chemical weapons or begins a genocide. Even under these conditions, we would likely only undertake intervention as part of a broad, multinational coalition acting on behalf of the United Nations. The American military would undoubtedly seek a minimum footprint, focusing on logistics, transportation, intelligence, air defense, and airpower, while other nations would likely provide the bulk of the ground forces and undertake a large part of the stabilization and reconstruction after Qaddafi’s removal. 

No-fly zone and naval blockade. Together, these comprise the most widely discussed form of military intervention, but, even then, there are gradations. A nationwide no-fly zone, as Tom Ricks has pointed out at Foreign Policy, would require destroying Libya’s extensive air-defense system. It would also be possible, however, to limit a no fly-zone to areas already controlled by anti-government forces, where air-defense systems would be inoperative, or even to actions against government aircraft actually undertaking attacks. While a no-fly zone and blockade would have relatively modest costs compared to other forms of intervention, taken alone, they would have little chance of removing Qaddafi. At best, they would demonstrate that the United States and other states that participate, if they choose to do so, are on the side of the anti-government forces as they continue to battle the regime. 

Protect rebel-held areas. This third type of military intervention would involve extensive security of locales, mostly in the eastern part of the country, controlled by anti-government forces, including the major cities of Misurata and Benghazi. It would require U.S. forces on the ground to man air-defense systems and, potentially, blunt conventional attacks. This certainly could protect the anti-government forces and prevent Qaddafi from re-asserting control over eastern Libya, particularly if it also involved assistance from the powerful Egyptian military. But it could also easily help lead to the long-term division of Libya into two or more parts—some held by Qaddafi and others by anti-government groups. Qaddafi would be unlikely to negotiate his own removal, and his opponents would be unlikely to accept a power-sharing arrangement with him, so the country could end up fractured. Consequently, while any American military forces might be withdrawn quickly, troops from other nations in an intervening coalition might have to stay for an extended period, and they would still probably continue to need some form of U.S. military support and financial backing. 

Assist rebel forces. This fourth type of intervention could range from the provision of munitions and supplies to training and direct support, such as intelligence, logistics, and transportation. If the anti-government forces in Libya hold on to territory they currently have (and possibly gain more), regular U.S. military units could provide assistance. If the regime regains control of the territory now dominated by anti-government forces, however, the conflict might devolve into an insurgency. Other nations, including the United States, could then provide sanctuary, training, and equipment for the insurgents, tailored for guerrilla and psychological operations. U.S. Special Forces could lead that effort (supporting insurgency against dictators was the Special Forces’ initial mission). However, this would further strain Special Forces, which are already the busiest component of the U.S. military. For this reason, American involvement in an insurgency would likely be limited. 

Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.