Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa announced today that his country had called for a halt to all military operations against opposition forces. The move follows Thursday's U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized a no-fly zone over Libya and "all necessary actions to protect civilians and civilian populated areas." The White House will, of course, call this a victory, but it is an unquestionable failure of U.S. foreign policy.
The amount of time it took to impose this no-fly zone is unacceptable. Casualties have been mounting for more than two weeks, and the longer the president waited for the international community to come to consensus, the more lives were lost. The casualty count is now believed to be in the thousands.
This was likely why former President Bill Clinton challenged Obama's position on a no-fly zone in Libya. "If the leaders [of the opposition] are on television pleading for it, I think that we should do it," Clinton said. He made similar calculations in the late 1990s before imposing a no-fly zone in the former Yugoslavia, where his dithering also cost thousands of lives.
For all the talk of risk, there was little. True, there is always a risk that Qadhafi could activate sleeper terrorist cells against the United States. However, we don't know how likely that is. In the meantime, we can fire at Libyan targets from naval warships at a safe distance. And the thought that the Libyan air force could challenge ours is laughable.
More importantly, based on past experiences with Qadhafi, we know that despite the bravado, he cowers when threatened. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003 over concerns that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, Libya immediately approached the British government about entering into discussions. By December 2003, Libya had agreed to destroy all of its weapons of mass destruction.
For now, Libya appears to be taking advantage of the time gap between the U.N. resolution and its enforcement. CNN and other outlets report that the regime's violence against the opposition has not ended. Despite Koussa's announcement, the western city of Misrata is apparently still under attack by Qadhafi's forces, and casualties are still mounting.
"Misrata is on fire," claimed one opposition member, who said Libyan tanks and heavy artillery began assaulting the town Thursday night, and that fighting continued into Friday.
To be sure, the blood spilled in Libya is on Qadhafi's hands. But the fact that it has continued for weeks was the result of indecisive leadership in Washington.