U.S. no-fly zone over Libya a bad idea (or, Neocons are always wrong)

UNDATED PHOTO: This undated image shows a U.S. Air Force F-16 on patrol over the "No-Fly Zone" in Northern Iraq. Coalition aircraft have recently engaged Iraqi air defense instillations in the Northern No-Fly Zone. (Photo by U.S. Air Force/Getty Images)

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is trying to put the brakes on a bad idea: a U.S. imposed “no fly zone” over Libya, as called for by the neocon buddy act in the U.S. Senate: Joe Lieberman and John McCain. Let’s all hope Gates succeeds. 

The bully-boy talk, including on foreign soil, about putting U.S. warplanes in the air over Libya has been troubling, but not so troubling as the news reports that both the American and British governments are actually considering doing it.

Declaring a no-fly zone over any country is no mere bag of words. It’s a military action, and a de facto declaration of war, as Bob Gates on Tuesday reminded the neocons, who are always spoiling for war, though most of them, like Lieberman, actively avoided war when they were young enough to fight the one in Vietnam.

Foreign Policy Magazine posted this handy “no fly zone” explainer.

And here are five reasons we should just say no to the neocon’s latest bright idea:

1. No-fly zones mean killing people … In this case, Libyan people. The upshot: no-fly zones mean U.S. and British warplanes engaging, possibly shooting down, and possibly being shot down, by the enemy. If the U.S. were to put our planes in the air over Libya, there’s a very real chance we’d wind up trying to take out assets on the ground as part of the operation — some of which are in populated areas — which means we could kill civilians. How would that help either the good guys in Libya or us? At the very least, imposing a U.S.-U.K. no-fly zone risks sucking us into a larger conflict that we’ve bargained for.

2. We’d become the center of the story. Like the Tunisia and Egyptian uprisings, and the organic revolts taking place across the Arab and Muslim world, the Libyan rebellion is entirely the result of internal struggle. The ravings of Muammar Qaddafi that the near-civil war is the result of drug-addled teens, al-Qaida or outside agitators, including the U.S., are absurd. But they wouldn’t seem absurd for long after we started filling Libya’s airspace with our military hardware, and possibly causing even a handful of civilian deaths. Why would we want to give Qaddafi something to fight, namely us? Why give his ruthless, ugly fight any legitimacy in the eyes of the Arab world?

3. It’s the Libyans’ revolution, not ours. If we learned one thing (that we should have already known) from Iraq, it’s that you cannot impose liberty on a people. People want and deeply need, it turns out, to liberate themselves — to stand up as men and women and fight for their own futures. When “liberation” is imposed, it’s infantalizing and demoralizing, and the only way to counteract that is to liberate one’s country from the liberators — hence, the fierce Iraqi insurgency … against US. Meanwhile, in Egypt and Tunisia, the people who liberated that country — the young men and women who braved death to take down the dictators they’d known all their lives — could not feel better about themselves and their countries. That’s how you build democracy, not by sending in the American military.

4. We can no longer afford to be the world’s police. Another lesson from Iraq. Look, China and Russia would veto any military action in Libya, and so the U.S. would be forced to rely on yet another “coalition of the willing,” with our usual war buddy Great Britain. Meanwhile, both countries are drowning in debt, and still struggling to extricate ourselves from the two-front war George W. Bush and Tony Blair sank us into. Why open up a third front? How many Muslim countries are we going to fight at once before the neocons just sit down and get a hobby?

5. It might violate international law. According to Oxford international law professor Stefan Talmon:

Any action without express Security Council backing would be of questionable legality under international law. The two no-fly zones over Iraq, which were imposed by the United States, the United Kingdom and France after the second Gulf War in 1991 in order to protect the Shi’a Muslims in the south and Kurds in the north against repressive measures by the Iraqi Government, were based on the doctrines of ‘implicit authorization’ (United States) and ‘humanitarian intervention’ (United Kingdom). Neither of those doctrines has gained general, or even widespread, acceptance in international law. Any unilateral action byNATO  or another ‘coalition of the willing’ would thus head for a 1999 Kosovo-style scenario which might at best be described as ‘illegal but legitimate’ – the ultimate admission of defeat for any international lawyer.

Assuming the Security Council was deadlocked over the question of a no-fly zone over Libya (or parts of it), could States willing to take such action rely on any other legal basis? In particular, could States rely on a provisional measures order of the ICJ indicating a no-fly zone?

And of course, there’s the biggest reason to reject this particular idea:

6. Neocons are always wrong. Literally every assumption made by people like Joe Lieberman, John McCain and their think tank pals like Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, let alone the Pentagon “go squad” led by Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and company, was utterly, thoroughly wrong. There’s no reason to listen to any of these people now. The Obama administration hasn’t been flashy, but it has handled the unfolding North African and Mideast turmoil carefully and competently. Listening to the drama-mongers who long to see an American president thumping the table or the neocons who want the U.S. to fire at least one shot in every Muslim country on earth, would only mess that up.

This from CNN:

U.S. officials say all military and diplomatic options are on the table, but Gates and Mullen told the hearing that pursuing a forced grounding of Libyan aircraft is complicated and risky.

One Western diplomat, leaving a Security Council meeting on Wednesday, said that a no-fly zone over Libya would be “extremely difficult to implement — you need airports, hundreds of planes. It is an act of war, and you have to bear the consequences.”

Such a move could risk the ire of Libya’s Muslim and Arab neighbors and inflame already prickly relations with Security Council members Russia and China, experts say. Worse, such a provocative move could be perceived by Gadhafi’s regime as a declaration of war.

“The worst-case scenario may not be horrible, but we have seen that the costs of perceived military unilateralism in the Arab world are high,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in national security and defense issues.

While the U.S. response has been diplomatic so far, a no-fly zone could cause things to escalate in a hurry: After the first Gulf War, the United States, with U.N. support, established a no-fly zone over southern Iraq in 1992 after reports that Saddam Hussein had used violence against Iraqis, specifically Kurds and Shiites. In the following years, Hussein’s air forces openly challenged the zone, resulting in skirmishes and an air of brinkmanship that didn’t end, fully, until 2003′s Operation Iraqi Freedom.

And without the ground support that coalition forces had in the Gulf War, foreign policy experts are split on how effective a no-fly zone would be.

But one thing they all agree on: A no-fly zone could touch off a wider conflagration.

And this via Steve Clemons, who clips from the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, re the differences between Libya and Saddam Hussein-era Iraq:

First, Saddam’s regime had just fought a major war with U.S.-led forces, while rapprochement has been the focus of recent U.S.-Libyan relations. Within the context of antigovernment uprisings, no-fly zones effectively transform the foreign power into a combatant — presenting them as purely humanitarian in nature stretches credibility. Accordingly, such zones are best used as a means of curtailing the sovereignty of a regime with which the United States already has quasi-warlike relations.

Furthermore, U.S. military forces in the south were still occupying approximately one-eighth of Iraqi territory when the northern no-fly zone was established, and the establishment of Kurdish safe havens required further deployment of significant U.S. and coalition ground forces to deter regime incursions. Such ground deployments in Libya are probably not on the table. Most important, the United States could draw on strongly worded UN resolutions to underwrite its actions in 1991, whereas no such body of documents is available for use today.

In addition to being highly context-specific, no-fly and no-drive zones are notoriously difficult to implement. The rules of engagement (ROE) governing the mission must be exceptionally well conceived, and the military commanders must receive strong political support when they act within the rules. Any set of ROE must include a list of offending actions (known as the “ROE trip,” short for “tripwire”) plus “response options” (a set of pre-agreed retaliatory targets) and a “response ratio” (which establishes how vigorously the offender will be punished for transgressing the zone). U.S. forces needed twelve years of no-fly zone patrolling in Iraq to perfect the system, and even then the zones generated controversy because they often required relatively junior officers to use their initiative in interpreting the ROE.

In general, an aggressive opponent — such as Saddam and, perhaps, the Qadhafi regime — will regularly test the ROE, and the patrolling power may need to retaliate disproportionately to deter proscribed actions, including attacks on civilians and rebel forces. Any ROE, particularly those governing no-drive zones, may be prone to uncontrolled escalation, drawing the patrolling power into more significant military operations than initially intended. Collateral damage among civilian and friendly forces is always a risk, as occurred on April 14, 1994, when two U.S. helicopters were destroyed by other U.S. aircraft in the northern no-fly zone, killing twenty-six coalition and Iraqi personnel.

And as Clemons rightly states:

Military action should remain a last resort when all other options have failed. Increasing pressure on Gadhafi and his subordinates may cause some of his support to fragment, or even turn on the embattled colonel. An ill-conceived intervention can end up being far worse than taking no action at all. Any attempt by the United States to try to resolve the situation in Libya must be driven by a clearly thought-out strategy, not a response to political pressure.

That’s not to say that there’s no place for any iteration of a no-fly zone over Libya. Perhaps there is one that could work — because it comes from the region. From Al Jazeera:

The Arab League has said it may impose a “no fly” zone on Libya in co-ordination with the African Union if fighting continues in Libya.

Wednesday’s Arab League ministers’ meeting in Cairo rejected any direct outside military intervention in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi is trying to put down a revolt threatening his four decades in power. They reiterated their condemnation of his use of force.

The Arab resolution called on the Libyan government to respond to the “legitimate demands of the Libyan people” and to stop bloodshed. The Libyan authorities must lift restrictions on media and mobile networks and allow the delivery of aid.

The Arab League demanded “the preservation of the unity of Libyan lands and civil peace” — similar to the language it used in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Libya suspension

Their resolution confirmed Libya’s suspension from the organisation until it responded to demands such as allowing freedom of expression.

“The situation in Libya is sorrowful and it is not correct that we accept it or live with it,” said Amr Moussa, the League’s secretary general, speaking at the opening session.

“The Arab League will not stand with its hands tied while the blood of the brotherly Libyan people is spilt,” Moussa said.

Nor should they. This is the Arab world’s moment. We should fully support them as they seize it, including using every lever at our disposal: diplomatic, financial and humanitarian, to support a free Libya. I’d even agree with Lieberman and McCain about treating the groups controlling Easter Libya as a de facto government — something the Obama administration and other international leaders are already doing. But a Western military intervention, again, into an Arab country strikes me as so wrongheaded, so backwards, and so repetitive of the mistakes we made in the Bush era, I can hardly believe we’re seriously discussing it, not a week after Gates said any future defense secretary who advises such a thing should have his head examined.

I’d hate to think that the American neocons want so badly to be involved in a liberation that any entry means will do. But as each revolt unfolds in the Arab world, these folks seem really eager to send in the G.I.s. Thank god none of them has the power to do it — and thank god they no longer have the ear of a United States president.

Meanwhile, Foreign Policy has more on the escalating violence in Libya, as Qaddafi’s goons face off against rebels. It seems there is little global appetite to intervene militarily in Libya, but clearly, humanitarian aid to the rebels is moving way up the priority list. U.S. warships remain just offshore.

And Al Jazeera has even more detail on the fierce battles, including calls by one rebel group for “targeted air strikes on African mercenaries” — but no ground invasion, by U.N. forces.

Related: Wired goes inside Qaddafi’s secret, underground arsenal

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3 Responses to U.S. no-fly zone over Libya a bad idea (or, Neocons are always wrong)

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