President Obama should announce immediately full U.S. support for a British-French led No Fly Zone over Libya. He should express confidence in the British and French to organize and conduct this military operation with the backing of their colleagues in the 27-nation European Union and NATO. The US should stand ready to respond to requests for help if we have unique capabilities, including intelligence assets, essential for this mission.
Moreover, President Obama should assure our British and French allies that if they decide to act without United Nations authorization, the United States will stand behind them -- even as he reaffirms his hope that the Security Council will quickly authorize a No Fly Zone.
Five major considerations make US deference to a European-led undertaking America's best option.
First, look at the map. Geographically, North Africa is to Europe as the islands of the Caribbean are to the U.S. The Italian isle of Lampedusa, where refugees are arriving by boat daily, is closer to Tunisia than the 90 miles from Cuba to Florida. Europeans cannot escape the direct and immediate consequences of whatever transpires across this small pond. Given this reality, their leaders are passionately calling for action and should be encouraged to act.
Second, history as well as geography has taught Europeans many complexities of culture, ethnicity, tribes, and personalities in the dramas unfolding in North Africa. How many members of Congress, or American TV anchors and editorialists, know which countries the following cities are in: Constantine, Meknes, Muscat, Sfax, Barqa, and Homs? How many Americans can name the major tribes that serve as the primary bond of allegiance in these countries?
Third, Europe has the military resources to do the job. When Europeans were unable to mount their own military campaign to stop slaughter in the Balkans during the late-1990s, the US was forced to act. To fill this capabilities gap, Britain and France announced creation of a joint Rapid Deployment Force of 60,000 troops. Its stated rationale was to give Europe a rapid reaction capacity to address contingencies directly impacting the continent. What more appropriate opportunity than the current conflict in Libya for Europe to use this instrument?
Fourth, in the aftermath of the fall of autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, new governments in these countries will require substantial, sustained financial and technical assistance to build more stable, prosperous, and democratic societies. Europe has the motivation and the resources to take the lead in what will require a multi-billion dollar decade or longer effort. Through the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and well-established bilateral channels, the US should be fully supportive. But as it did for its Eastern European neighbors after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe should lead and provide the lion's share of the resources to meet the challenges that will follow the fall of the Wall of Arab Autocrats.
Finally, unlike Europe, the US is inescapably a global superpower with responsibilities that span every continent. The US cannot, however, serve in every place at every time as the world's policeman, fireman, and emergency management service. Demanding that the US take ownership of every crisis will assure only one outcome: failure.
Success in meeting both current and future challenges will require smarter strategy and deeper collaboration with allies. This begins with internalizing a big strategic idea: the division of labor. By empowering states whose interests and values are sufficiently aligned with our own and encouraging them to take the lead in managing immediate and direct threats to their interests, the US will be better prepared to act in cases that require singular American leadership.
Could the U.S. unilaterally and decisively impose a no-fly zone over Libya? Of course. With an annual defense budget of $700 billion, the U.S. has unrivaled global military reach that provides a capacity to go anywhere and destroy anything.
Why then has Secretary of Defense Gates voiced such vehement opposition to the U.S. imposing a no-fly zone? His message is less about resources than about strategy. From that perspective, the current crisis in Libya represents an opportunity to begin the transition from the presumption that the US should always take the lead in meeting every global challenge. Recognizing Europe's interests, responsibilities, and capabilities to act in Libya points the way for a more intelligent and sustainable future.
Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is a former assistant secretary of defense and was a long-time member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board.