No one doubts the importance of U.S. action to end the regime of Moammar Kadafi. Unlike Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose overthrow inspired a resistance movement in Libya, Kadafi has made war on his own people. The United States' response has been muscular, if delayed. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton explicitly have called for Kadafi's removal, a dramatic departure from diplomatic norms. And Obama has seized the assets of Kadafi and his family, an action paralleled by those of the U.N. Security Council and the European Union.
The question is how the pressure on Kadafi can be increased, and how the United States might ensure the safety of the Libyan people, who, even if they are likely to succeed in ousting Kadafi, in the meantime face unsparing attacks from the air. At the minimum, sanctions should be further increased to include oil purchases. In cooperation with members of the Security Council, the United States should prohibit the export of goods to Libya.
Another, more controversial step would be the use of military force against Kadafi. Clinton has said that the administration is considering a United Nations-approved no-fly zone over Libya, and Obama has moved battleships and jet fighters closer to the country. We think a no-fly zone would be a bad idea.
As The Times' David Cloud pointed out, a no-fly zone would require a major effort by the United States and its allies to establish round-the-clock patrols. American jets would be vulnerable to Libya's 50 surface-to-air missiles. A no-fly zone in Libya would also involve the United States in a conflict in which it isn't a party. And it would create a precedent for future civil wars. Would the United States be prepared to control the skies of any nation that was the site of a rebellion and immerse itself in someone else's war?
Perhaps the administration hopes that the mere threat of a no-fly zone will concentrate Kadafi's mind on stepping down. But the real thing would be a mistake (and might be a political impossibility, given Russian opposition).
There is an array of additional sanctions that the United States and its allies can impose. Kadafi must be removed, but without U.S. military intervention. Except for some unforeseen situation, the use of force should be off the table. Jet fighters are not the only way to bring Kadafi to his knees.