Imposing a no-fly zone wasn't an option for President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- Japanese military might eliminated the choice. FDR opted for a covert operation: the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as the Flying Tigers. The AVG would give China a nominal air defense capability and signal U.S. political sympathy for its war-savaged people. Now for the overt fact: Most AVG pilots were U.S. Army and Marine officers who conveniently resigned their commissions. However, their public status as volunteers provided a thin veil of deniability that made the operation politically feasible. It wasn't a black op, to use the jargon for covert action, but a gray op.
The differences between Libya 2011 and China 1941 are glaringly obvious. However, the vulnerability of Libyan civilians to attacks delivered by Moammar Gadhafi's air force is comparable, as is the moral dilemma of giving the defenseless and terrorized a degree of protection. I would venture Gadhafi's views on atrocity as a tool to cow a population are similar to Japan's emperor-worshipping generals.
As for U.S. policy regarding Libya's anti-Gadhafi revolt, diplomatic silence is no longer an option. President Barack Obama said Gadhafi must go. Translation: Gadhafi's survival now represents an American diplomatic defeat. Obama advocates economic sanctions to pressure the dictator. Gadhafi, however, has money, he's counter-attacked, and he vows to fight to the bloody end.
Nudged by Sen. John McCain, the Obama administration now says it is considering imposing a no-fly zone, though Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argues, correctly, that a no-fly zone is an act of war.
U.N. authorization would make a no-fly zone more politically palatable, but China (in 2011) has a Security Council veto. China isn't keen on intervention. Its ruling communist oligarchs are clamping down on Chinese dissidents because they fear the democratic shockwave unleashed by Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution. Having Gadhafi suppress his rebels may serve Beijing's domestic interests.
The Obama administration itself has sent conflicting signals since Tunisia rebelled. Recall Vice President Joe Biden said Egypt's Hosni Mubarak wasn't a dictator. Obama's Libyan reluctance follows that script. Rhetorically he demands Gadhafi's ouster, but overt military options to achieve this goal languish as he seeks multilateral consent.
Conflicting signals and chronic indecisiveness suggest the Obama administration hasn't decided what U.S. interests are at stake in 2011's remarkable revolts against corrupt dictatorships.
Here's a clue: 2011 finds America representing history's winners at the strategic, long-term level. The demands for freedom in the streets of Tunis and Cairo echo the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Ironically, 2011 also finds an American government that is tactically alienated from these energized democratic forces because it is convinced of America's past agency in what its left-wing academic gurus call imperialism, racism, reactionary-ism, et cetera. For these toffs, the hint of U.S. involvement in an event taints its historical purity, or some equivalent balderdash.
But the world isn't a faculty lounge. In Libya, as President Obama mulls, Gadhafi's air force mauls.
OK, overt intervention makes Obama look like George W. Bush, and his leftist voters can't stomach that (heck, Gitmo's still open). But Libyan civilians are dying, right now. A Gadhafi victory does not serve Libya's or America's best interest. A Gadhafi victory serves the interests of autocrats -- which bodes ill for long-term stability.
Obama ought to pursue a gray op (like FDR's AVG) that sends the overt, undeniable political message that America has a stake in promoting 21st century liberty. Given the information porosity of today's battlefield (cell phones, twitter), a sustained covert op will be exposed, so leverage it by advancing a pro-liberation diplomatic agenda.
Have the CIA and Green Berets -- ideally working with Tunisian and Egyptian special forces -- identify rebel leaders who wish to emulate Tunisia and Egypt; supply their fighters with arms, medicine and communications gear; provide them with intelligence.
Who knows? Gadhafi's pilots may impose their own no-fly zone after special operations commandos armed with Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles nail a couple of jets.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
Be the first to read Austin Bay's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.