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The current situation in Libya is one of functional civil war that can turn into a long-running stalemate or be won quickly by either side. This short note outlines in broad terms US options and recommends future avenues of exploration.
Risks an unfavorable outcome (Gaddafi wins or long stalemate) and completely misses a historic window of opportunity. Advantages include not causing more damage to the already damaged view of the US in the so-called Arab Street. Not recommended.
Risks very unfavorable media coverage due to civilian casualties – not needed in the age of Abu Ghraib and continued losses of civilian life in Afghanistan. Unless reliable and independently confirmed intelligence can be gathered on the exact whereabouts of loyalist forces or Gaddafi himself, this could result in extreme backlash worldwide. Even success risks making a madman into a martyr. Not recommended unless in very specific, “100% intelligence” circumstances or the US political leadership is again comfortable with assassinating an Arab leader.
Low risk, high gain strategy that depends on not getting the aircrews shot down. Accomplished at night for increased security with decreased accuracy/effectiveness. More intelligence and communication/coordination with rebel forces would increase effectiveness and decrease risk. Needs fighter escort.
High risk, medium gain strategy that could heavily backfire if crews were captured or killed and paraded publicly. Arab Street would go ballistic. Not recommended unless in situation of long-term stabilization of stalemate in which case some foreign training personnel could be kept away from actual areas of conflict.
Low risk, high gain strategy that risks some ire in the rest of the Middle East but doesn't involve anything that will explode all over Al-Jazeera and specifically doesn't make for good cable news images or video, even if unsuccessful or shot down. Depends on somewhat accurate intelligence, but if Gaddafi-loyalist armor or “technicals” (pickup trucks with an AA gun or heavy machine gun on the back) are seen leaving loyalist strongholds striking them will carry a low risk while severely impacting loyalist ability to project force or fire on rebel-stronghold civilians with impunity.
Low risk, low gain strategy that would be ineffective in the short run without the cooperation of Niger, Chad and Sudan. Should be explored further, especially in conjunction with supplying rebel-held strongholds like Benghazi.
Overt ground forces
High-risk, medium-gain strategy that would decisively end the conflict in our favor while accepting a significant blow to the US reputation in the Arab Street and further push us into the “bad guy” corner for many in the Middle East. A botched operation that didn't immediately capture or eliminate Gaddafi would incur further costs in lives and US international prestige. Recommend immediate withdrawal in the aftermath in order to minimize a “Black Hawk Down” risk scenario and letting Libyan rebels carry the day.
High risk, low gain strategy in the absence of broad international support. Risks captured, killed pilots and would not have a drastic impact on the battlefield as Libyan loyalist air force is not terribly effective against lightly armed, armored rebels. Not recommended as it would take a sustained, costly and manpower-intensive operation while those same assets are better employed in Iraq/Afghanistan or rotated out.
In summary, a combination of increased intelligence-gathering using Libyan expats coupled with increased efforts to contact and coordinate with rebels while pursuing the various low-risk strategies can positively impact the situation while remaining free from charges of imposing infidel Western power on another Arab country. This author recommends air-dropping supplies, initially at night, exploring possible drone attacks and exploring tightening the noose around Gaddafi-loyalists' ability to pay their people and supply their forces.