Why a Libyan No-Fly Zone Is Worth the Risks

If the U.S. is to intervene against Qaddafi, the time is now

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On Meet the Press this weekend, the White House Chief of Staff downplayed plans for a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone over Libya. But the U.S. military looks to be preparing for just such a possibility. Two U.S. Navy warships with an accompaniment of 600 U.S. Marines are settling in the Mediterranean, and the U.S.S. Enterprise lurks in the Red Sea. Most telling, John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Face the Nation that a no-fly zone would not constitute military intervention. The U.S. Senate has already voted unanimously in favor of such a move.

General James Mattis, Commander of U.S. Central Command and never one to mince words, disagreed with the senator from Massachusettes. "No illusions here, it would be a military operation. It wouldn't simply be telling people not to fly airplanes." Writing last week at TheAtlantic.com, Edward Rees argued that a no-fly zone would be ineffective at stopping mass slaughter of civilians and risks quickly escalating out of control.

The Libyan government, led by Moammar Qaddafi, is using its Air Force to strafe protestors. Rounds from a MiG-23 30mm cannon do awful things to the human body. This brazen violence against civilians suggests that Qaddafi is not concerned with the United States and believes he can slaughter his way out of defeat. A no-fly zone is gaining support internationally as the civilian body count rises.

A major risk of the U.S. using air power is the temptation to overuse it. According to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, "A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses." From a U.S. perspective, this would obviously be preferable to the Marines adding a star to their Tripoli battle streamer. But once the first U.S. missile strikes the first Libyan target, the shock is gone and the stage is set for continued operations. It's far easier to launch the second missile.

General Stanley McChrystal, a classical liberal, was very sensitive to the risks of air power. Upon taking command of NATO forces in Afghanistan, he commented, "Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly." Throughout his brief tenure as commander, McChrystal was criticized for restricting the use of air assets but he held firm. As he argued in his counterinsurgency training guide, civilian casualties have a far more lasting effect than do conventional military victories: "This is part of the reason why eight years of individually successful kinetic actions have resulted in more violence." Last week, McChrystal was proven right in the most shocking of ways when NATO aircraft inadvertently slaughtered nine Afghan children. The dead were not collateral damage from a strike against terrorists, but were alone, unarmed, and sent by their parents to chop wood for a cold winter's night. The people of that village will never recover.

If it is the intent of the United States to use military force in Libya by imposing a no-fly zone, the president and his administration should make the argument now rather than later. Qaddafi is a madman, but he is a madman with a well-honed survival instinct. This same Qaddafi in December of 2003 admitted that his government had been actively developing a massive weapons program, but promptly surrendered it to President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. Qaddafi further opened his borders to international weapons inspectors. More astoundingly, he wrote billion dollar checks to the families of victims of Pan Am Flight 103 and UTA Flight 772. He feared the Bush Doctrine.

Presented by

David W. Brown is the coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Generally published under the pseudonym D.B. Grady, Brown is a graduate of Louisiana State University, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, and a veteran of Afghanistan. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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