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Margaret Warner: How the No-Fly Zone Floundered

As forces loyal to Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi drew closer Tuesday to encircling Libyan rebels in their capital of Benghazi, President Obama met with his top national security team to discuss what White House press secretary Jay Carney said were “ways to increase the pressure on Gadhafi … and … stop the violence there.”

But by the time they come up with any effective strategy, the one-month-old Libyan insurgency could be toast.

The rebels’ last fading hope — a Western-enforced no-fly-zone over Libya — appeared fatally quashed in Paris Tuesday morning, as a Group of 8 meeting attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke up with no agreement to impose one. If the West had launched it a week ago, lamented French foreign minister Alain Juppe, “perhaps the reversals suffered by the opposition would not have happened. But that is the past.”

Tellingly, the Obama administration did not join France and Britain in pressing for the measure. What happened? After all, it was just Feb. 28 that UK Prime Minister David Cameron proposed imposing a no-fly zone to keep Gadhafi from airlifting mercenary fighters or using military aircraft to attack his own people. That same day, Washington’s U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters a no-fly zone is “an option we are considering, and considering actively seriously.” Over that week, Secretary Clinton said it was under “active consideration,” and there was bipartisan support for the idea from two foreign policy lions of the Senate, Democrat John Kerry and Republican John McCain.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the no-fly zone. Humanitarian and pro-democracy impulses in both parties came up against practical and political realities. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made sure the realities were clear. “Let’s just call a spade a spade,” he said March 2, decrying the “loose talk” of a risk-free, cost-free no-fly zone option. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. … It’s a big operation in a big country”

The next day, President Obama said he’d directed the Pentagon to prepare for all military options. But since then, as Gadhafi forces gained territory on the ground, the administration sounded ever more wary about the prospect. On March 10, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress, “I think over the longer term that the regime will prevail.” In a conference call with reporters that same day, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon didn’t even mention military action in the list of options being pursued to force Gadhafi to leave. Pressed on the point, he emphasized that “military steps are not the only method by which we and the international community are pressuring Gadhafi.”

He went on to lay out a daunting set of hurdles to be met before the U.S. would act — prior endorsement and participation by the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council and African Union, and by the U.N. Security Council as well.

Last weekend, the Arab League did ask the Security Council to impose a no fly zone, giving the flagging rebels a brief spurt of hope. But the American public, it seems, spoke louder.

All you have to do is look at two polls out this week, by CNN and the Pew Research Center. Pew’s was the more telling, because of the way the questions were phrased. At first blush, asked if they’d favor enforcing a no fly zone over Libya, 48 percent of Pew respondents said yes, 42 percent said no. But when confronted with the prospect of bombing Libyan air defenses — one of Gates’ prerequisites for enforcing it — a resounding 75 percent of the respondents were opposed. And by a 3-to-1 margin, they even opposed sending arms and supplies to the anti-government opposition. When asked to explain their reluctance, a majority said, “Our military forces are already over-committed.”

On Tuesday, Lebanon, on behalf of the Arab League, began circulating a draft U.N. Security Council resolution to impose a no-fly zone. But prospects appear dim, and not just because of Russian and Chinese opposition. This is not 1995, when President Bill Clinton supported a NATO bombing campaign to protect Bosnian civilians against Serbian forces, despite lack of U.S. public support. Sixteen years later, it’s a new game.

The debt-laden U.S. has neither the treasure nor the public appetite to go on rescue missions. Two bloody decade-long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have sated any appetite for that. War-weary Americans have weighed in. And unless evidence emerges that Gadhafi’s force has been slaughtering civilians in its march to Benghazi, an incumbent president seeking re-election would be loathe to buck them.

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