Worldview: Why we mustn't initiate a Libya no-fly zone

Libyan women in Benghazi protested Wednesday. Three U.S. senators' calls for a no-fly zone ignore harsh realities of the Libyan conflict.
Libyan women in Benghazi protested Wednesday. Three U.S. senators' calls for a no-fly zone ignore harsh realities of the Libyan conflict.

Instead, U.S. officials should help coordinate an Arab and African response to this crisis.

Posted: March 10, 2011

As Libyan rebels are pushed back by the forces of the mad Col. Moammar Gadhafi, we're all rooting for the underdog.

Even though we know little about the rebels and their leaders, we assume they'd be an improvement over the crazed colonel. But that emotional tug doesn't justify the proposal by three influential senators - Republicans Mitch McConnell and John McCain, and Democrat John Kerry - that we set up a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Gadhafi from bombing his own people.

As the Pentagon (which opposes the idea) knows too well, our military is still deeply enmeshed in Afghanistan, hasn't yet left Iraq - and has Special Forces in Yemen. We can't afford to become involved in another war in another Muslim land.

Despite the emotional pleas by Benghazi rebels on CNN, much of the talk about no-fly zones ignores the harsh realities of the Libyan conflict. The ongoing Arab revolts have been genuine grassroots protests driven by local grievances, and not orchestrated by the West or other outside powers; this is an immense source of pride and renewed self-confidence for local Arabs, as I witnessed during my recent trip to Egypt. Any unilateral U.S. intervention in Libya would raise the specter of colonial intervention and would rally radical Islamists to the cause of Gadhafi.

The situation might be different if the U.N. Security Council endorsed a no-fly zone over Libya, but that seems highly unlikely, given the opposition of Russia and China. Nor are most NATO countries eager to sign on to a no-fly zone, especially without U.N. authorization. President Obama has said that NATO would consider all options when it met Thursday, but I think he was just trying to talk tough.

It might be easier to generate an international response if Gadhafi were slaughtering huge numbers of people. Massive ethnic cleansing by Serbian leaders impelled the United Nations to declare a no-fly zone over Bosnia in 1993 and for NATO to impose one over Kosovo in 1999. The United States, France, and Britain imposed no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq in the early 1990s after Saddam Hussein slaughtered thousands of Shiites.

But the situation in Libya is not (yet) that horrific; rather than wide-scale slaughter of unarmed protesters, it has morphed into a struggle between tribal groups that support and oppose Gadhafi. "A no-fly zone . . . might make us feel good," says Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, "but it isn't relevant to the fight that is going on now [which is] a civil war."

As Zenko points out, in such a conflict, a no-fly zone might not even achieve much. Many of the bombing runs by Gadhafi's aging MiG fighters appear ineffective, and many appear aimed at ammunition dumps, not civilians. Most of the killing appears to be carried out by artillery, mortars, and machine guns targeting ill-organized and often leaderless rebel forces.

I can't help recalling, with a shudder, that some of the worst massacres that the Serbs committed in Bosnia took place while a U.N. no-fly zone was in operation. And in Iraq, the no-fly zones continued for more than a decade, but Hussein was toppled only by the 2003 invasion.

What would happen if the United States established a no-fly zone and Gadhafi continued to fight - or reestablished control? Would we send in ground forces?

If the answer is no - and it should be - we should consider other options. Some, such as sanctions and freezing of regime assets abroad, are already in place. And the movement of a U.S. Marine expeditionary unit within striking distance of Tripoli makes sense; it can be used for humanitarian rescues or intelligence-gathering.

More should be done to entice some of Gadhafi's military loyalists to defect, both by threatening war-crimes prosecutions and also offering amnesty if they break with their leader.

Most important, U.S. officials should be working with Egypt's interim military rulers to help coordinate an Arab and African response to this crisis. Gadhafi has been trying to blackmail Egypt into supporting him by threatening to expel hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers from his country.

But Egypt's military can see that many of these workers have already fled and that Gadhafi is a dangerous neighbor, one with whom they have come to blows before. Continued instability in Libya threatens Egypt and the entire region.

If the Arab League, which has its headquarters in Cairo and meets later this week to discuss Libya, would endorse a no-fly zone and persuade the African Union to do the same, this would matter; it would signal that the countries of the region want Gadhafi gone. If these countries would also help arm and train the rebels - aided, on request, by NATO - the chance of defections by Gadhafi's forces would skyrocket. So would the chance of victory by the rebels.

The best prospects for resolving the Gadhafi conundrum depend on Arab and African leaders making clear he is no longer wanted, backed by action to expedite his exit. U.S. officials should work hard to promote that scenario. Saudi Arabia could even offer the mad colonel a comfy retirement home.


E-mail Trudy Rubin

at trubin@phillynews.com.

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