President Obama's inaction in the face of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi's counteroffensive will have lasting consequences. The United States is still paying for the elder President Bush's 1991 decision to stand idle as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein crushed the Shiite revolt. Bush's realist aides counseled passivity. After all, the Iraqi people had already taken 14 out of 18 provinces. Bush feared that any American support for the rebels might taint their cause and be a slippery slope toward entanglement. In hindsight, though, Bush's willingness to see Saddam reconsolidate control forced the Iraqi Shiites to embrace Iran as their protector, and set the United States down the path toward greater conflict.
Obama should not make the same mistake twice: He should immediately impose both a no-fly and a no-tactical-vehicle zone over areas controlled by Qaddafi. Libya is not Iraq, and a no-fly zone need not set the United States down the path to a wider war. While Saddam had 500,000 men under arms, Qaddafi had only 50,000, of whom press reports suggest only one-tenth remain. Beyond American carriers in the Mediterranean, Sigonella Air Station in Sicily is closer to the no-fly area than Incirlik Air Base was to Iraq. The United States should reach out toward Libyans to remind them that Washington is on their side, with both leaflet drops and daily statements to be broadcast on Radio Sawa. Taxpayer-funded Arabic radio should promote freedom, not Lady Gaga.
Lastly, Libya's upheaval underlines the importance of domestic energy security. Obama must enable drilling and exploration anywhere the United States can, and enable American companies to process shale oil, exploit coal reserves, reinvest in nuclear energy, and use other alternative sources.