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.

The Obama Doctrine, meanwhile, takes a clearly different approach. Though he's followed through with the previous administration's Iraq plans and heeded advice from Bush's generals and Secretary of Defense on Afghanistan, elsewhere in the world Obama is hesitant to pull the trigger, so to speak. The feeling seems to be that Team America has done enough. This is, in other words, a humbler foreign policy -- the very course of action embraced by Bush supporters in 1999.

A decade and two wars after Bush's election, Obama said in an address at Cairo University, "I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other." This was a hard shift from the doctrine of unilateralism, pre-emption, and Bush's argument that "The defense of freedom requires the advance of freedom."

Obama said of the ongoing Arab protests, "We did not see anti-American sentiment arising out of that movement in Egypt precisely because they felt that we hadn't tried to engineer or impose a particular outcome, but rather they owned it." However, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak never ordered his planes to bomb civilians. Libya is very quickly spiraling into a situation where the masses may not realistically be able to "own" the movement. If Qaddafi holds power, it would be extremely unlikely for him to take an attitude of "water under the bridge" toward those who had fought against him. There will likely be retribution of the worst kind. Tyrants know the intimacies of violence. It's generally how they achieve power, and invariably how they maintain it.

Even accepting the White House argument that revolutionary movements don't want U.S. involvement, a position echoed by many Libyan rebels, it is inevitable that they will require U.S. support, if not the day before an autocrat falls, then the day after. Timing is crucial if America's supposedly odious, imperious hand is to engage unmoored states and fledgling democracies. Ill-conceived elections need only happen once -- for example, in Iran in 1979 -- and then never again. The fear, therefore, should be organized extremists finding opportunity in chaos.

If the United States is to bomb Libya, the argument must be made now, both at home and to the international community, before Qaddafi can slaughter his way to victory over the rebel movement. Such a public debate might alone deter Qaddafi from further bloodshed. But if the U.S. is to stay home, the president should explain why he is willing to accept bloodshed that does not intersect with U.S. interests. That might clearly signal to protestors that they should not count on U.S. assistance, and possibly prevent the same massacre that befell the Iraqi Kurds following the Gulf War.

If the U.S. intervenes in the ongoing revolution in the Arab world, some will call these spontaneous and moving uprisings the work of the CIA. But such malcontents will say that no matter what. In the mean time, if the Obama administration is so committed, the people of Libya need to know that on the other side of their struggle is U.S. solidarity. And as "Colonel" Qaddafi's henchmen turn Tripoli into a killing field, it's a safe bet that at least a few protesters wish the U.S. Air Force was there to fire back.

Photo by Asmaa Waguih/Reuters