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Brown urges caution on no-fly zone for Libya

‘Once we make that commit- ment, we’re there for a long, long time,’ Senator Scott Brown said about the US role in Libya. ‘Once we make that commit-
ment, we’re there for a long, long time,’ Senator Scott Brown said about the US role in Libya.
By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / March 9, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Establishing a no-fly zone over Libya could ensnare US forces in another long-term engagement, Senator Scott Brown warned yesterday, joining a growing debate over the role of US forces and level of military commitment as Libya descends into a civil war.

“Any time you’re committing servicemen’s lives, you shouldn’t be doing it without thinking it all the way through,’’ said Brown, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has served in the Army National Guard. “Once we make that commitment, we’re there for a long, long time.’’

The Massachusetts Republican’s comments calling for an extremely cautious approach echo those of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has warned Congress that establishing a no-fly zone is more complicated and dangerous than many advocates acknowledge and has longer term implications.

Several of Brown’s colleagues in the Senate, including close ally Senator John McCain of Arizona, have been aggressively pushing the White House to lead an international effort to establish a no-fly zone, which would prevent Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Khadafy from launching jets to bomb antigovernment forces.

Jets and helicopters attacked protesters several times in the early days of the monthlong conflict. Recently, attacks have focused on rebels who have overrun several towns as they approach the capital of Tripoli.

Backers of a no-fly zone fear an unchecked Libyan air force would massacre its own citizens. Brown’s Democratic counterpart from Massachusetts, Senator John F. Kerry, a close ally of the Obama administration, brings up the harrowing specter of Rwanda in the 1990s as he prods the president to start preparations for such a zone.

Ethnic blood-letting in Rwanda killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s, with the Clinton administration remaining on the sidelines, a position Bill Clinton later regretted, Kerry has said.

The United States and its allies could thwart Libya air force by bombing airports and runways “and leave them incapable of using them for a period of time,’’ and a no-fly zone would not “step over the line’’ into a military intervention into Libya, Kerry said.

The administration has said it is considering all avenues, including military options. Press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday that the United States has taken “significant steps’’ on its own and with allies to lay the groundwork for future action.

President Obama conferred with British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday on the options. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said any decision on the no-fly zone would only be made in consultation with supportive allies, not unilaterally by the United States. Britain and France are working on a resolution to get UN authority, she said.

Brown left open the option of more forceful action if the United States receives strong and credible information that Khadafy, for example, is continuing to use mercenaries to kill his citizens.

Antigovernment forces and witnesses to attacks on protesters say the use of mercenaries was widespread, at least in the first days of the uprising.

The decision on whether to take to the airspace over Libya also pivots on whether that presence could eventually drag US troops onto the ground there.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a former director of intelligence assessment for the secretary of defense, said the decision will hinge on precise intelligence about Libya’s military capabilities and air defenses and “anyone on the outside can’t give you an honest answer.’’

The administration is probably considering all possible scenarios for what can go wrong if it makes such a commitment, he said.

“You have to really ask yourself — if you miscalculate, if they can win on the ground while you’re flying a no-fly zone, you have essentially bet your prestige and your position on using the wrong military means,’’ said Cordesman, who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan policy think tank in Washington. “And then you have to decide whether you’re going to intervene against a ground force.’’

Brown warned of that possibility, saying the military is already stretched with existing operations.

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday, McCain questioned the Marine commandant, General James F. Amos, about Khadafy’s air force and defenses and the capabilities of US forces in the area.

“Has it been your experience in combat that if the enemy controls the air above, particularly in terrain like Libya, it gives them an enormous advantage?’’ he said.

“Sir, I think there are several things that would give the enemy enormous advantage,’’ Amos responded. “It’s a very complex environment, where the Khadafy forces are predominately located. So I think it’s more than just aviation — I think it’s very complex.’’