What others say: Libya: Now what?

Published: Wednesday, March 23 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

The following editorial appeared recently in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

There's an old cartoon with a dog chasing a bus day after day, week after week, until in the final panel, the dog catches the bus and sinks its teeth into a rear tire. A thought balloon blossoms: "Now what?"

So it is now with Libya. On Thursday evening, St. Patrick's Day, 22 days after Moammar Gadhafi ordered his forces to begin firing on citizens protesting his rule, the U.N. Security Council authorized "all necessary measures," including a no-fly zone and military attacks on ground-based weapons and assets, to protect Libyan citizens.

From Missouri came three B-2 Spirit stealth bombers. From British and U.S. ships in the Mediterranean Sea came 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles. In short order, Libyan air defenses and much of its air force were gone. From the United States, England and France came jets to jam air defense radars and to work over ground targets like tanks, howitzers and armored personnel carriers. In the space of a long weekend, much of Gadhafi's military hardware essentially had been neutralized.

Now what?

In the short term, the civil war in Libya continues, raising the fundamental question of how far the St. Patrick's Day coalition will go to affect the outcome. Does it fly close air support for the rag-tag rebel forces? The U.N. resolution speaks only to the world community's "right to protect" citizens from assault by their governments, not to taking sides in a civil war.

Does it target Gadhafi himself? U.S. officials have said no. But given Gadhafi's vow to go "house to house" to kill his opponents, an attack where he just happens to be a victim would be defensible under the broad authority of the U.N. resolution.

Whatever happens next, it won't be under the aegis of the United States. President Barack Obama, speaking Monday at a news conference in Santiago, Chile, emphasized that the United States will cede its leading role in the coalition to other partners "within days."

The governments of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to put an Arab face into the coalition. If this military action needs a Western face, it should be Great Britain's.

The long-term "now what" question is particularly ominous. A partitioned Libya, with Gadhafi dug around Tripoli and chaos among rebel forces elsewhere, would present the world a huge and dangerous humanitarian problem. Indeed, even if Gadhafi somehow disappears, long-term chaos in Libya appears inevitable.

The Gadhafi government took special care over the last 40 years to make sure that no institution of any sort emerged to challenge the great leader. Indeed, one of the great shortcomings in the current rebellion is its lack of leadership. Creating a functional government in post-Gadhafi Libya will be a nightmare. Libya will not be fixed in a weekend.

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