A No-Fly Zone Over Libya?
By Taylor Marvin
An amphibious assault ship with a 400 strong Marine contingent is steaming towards Libya. Does this mean that the US is preparing to intervene in the increasingly bloody conflict between Qaddafi and his own people? Probably not- the carrier USS Enterprise, currently stationed in the Red Sea, isn’t going anywhere. But that doesn’t mean that the US doesn’t have the capabilities to quickly demolish Libya’s air force and extensive air defense network. US Navy aviation assets outclass any potential Libyan resistance, and Air Force F-22s already stationed in North Africa would likely be completely undetectable by Libya’s network of ancient anti-air radar stations. So why isn’t the US intervening?
A growing chorus of voices in the West are calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, in an attempt to quickly stop atrocities by pro-government forces and weaken Qaddafi’s rule. Secretary Clinton says the option is “under active consideration.” Marc Lynch sums up the argument:
“By acting, I mean a response sufficiently forceful and direct to deter or prevent the Libyan regime from using its military resources to butcher its opponents. I have already seen reports that NATO has sternly warned Libya against further violence against its people. Making that credible could mean the declaration and enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, presumably by NATO, to prevent the use of military aircraft against the protestors”
To advocates of a no-fly zone, Qaddafi’s ongoing atrocities create a moral imperative for the US to stop. Daniel Larison doesn’t agree:
“It is a standard interventionist tactic to try to rush a policy decision so that intervention seems to be the only appropriate choice. ‘There is no time to think through what we’re doing! We have to start doing it immediately!’ This is all the more strange when it seems as if Gaddafi’s hold on the country seems to be getting weaker every day.”
Andrew Exum echos this caution:
“I have been working under the suspicion that most of the good-natured people clamoring for a no-fly zone in Libya have not thought very hard about what, exactly, that might entail. Most of the people insisting the United States DO SOMETHING are either ignorant about the risks and complexities of contemporary military operations or gloss over those risks and complexities.”
He’s right- establishing a no-fly zone is a complicated, expensive military operation, and one that has the potential to easily slide into an open-ended commitment of significant military resources. Consider the example of the US/European effort to enforce a no-fly zone over Northern and Southern Iraq from the Gulf War to the Invasion of Iraq in 2003. Operation Provide Comfort and its successors Operations Northern and Southern Watch involved thousands of US and European airmen and soldiers, and dozens of aircraft. American aircraft were regularly fired upon by the Iraqis, and a friendly fire incident between US fighter jets and US Army transport helicopters killed 26 allied soldiers. There’s no reason to think a no-fly zone over Libya would be any less costly. Initially, any sustained US or NATO air presence over Libya would require the destruction of Libya’s air defense network, the second most extensive in Africa. While this is easily within the capabilities of the US military, it would probably be the largest US Air Force operation since the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, with a real possibility of lost US planes. Given the relatively large numerical size of the Libyan air force, it’s also likely that enforcing a no-fly zone would tie up a significant portion of US military resources, potentially for a long time. If the developing civil war in Libya evolves into a stalemate between the opposition-held east of the country and government-controlled Tripoli the US commitment to protect the opposition government could stretch for years, much like the decade long no-fly zone over Iraq. This doesn’t mean a no-fly zone isn’t justified, but it isn’t a decision that should be advocated lightly.
Nearly all of America’s wars of the past half century have been accidental. In Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq tragedies appealed to our most noble sentiments- America, with its unparalleled military power and public morality, could stop horrible conflicts. It’s hard to ignore this urge, especially under the constant assurances of pundits and analysts claiming how simple a humanitarian operation will be, and how it can’t be compared to the last quagmire America stumbled into. Maybe they’re right, and Libya is different- maybe the US can stop a madman from burning his own country quickly and easily. But history suggests that simple operations quickly become less simple once they’re actually begun. Anyone who can’t appreciate this is living in a fantasy world. That’s why the seductive reasoning of idealists like Christopher Hitchens can be so dangerous:
“Unless the administration seriously envisages a future that includes the continued private ownership of Libya and its people by Qaddafi and his terrible offspring, it’s a sheer matter of prudence and realpolitik, to say nothing of principle, to adopt a policy that makes the opposite assumption. Libya is—in point of population and geography—mainly a coastline. The United States, with or without allies, has unchallengeable power in the air and on the adjacent waters. It can produce great air lifts and sea lifts of humanitarian and medical aid, which will soon be needed anyway along the Egyptian and Tunisian borders, and which would purchase undreamed-of goodwill. It has the chance to make up for its pointless, discredited tardiness with respect to events in Cairo and Tunis. It also has a president who has shown at least the capacity to deliver great speeches on grand themes. Instead, and in the crucial and formative days in which revolutions are decided, we have had to endure the futile squawkings of a cuckoo clock.”
This optimism is a dream. That doesn’t make it false, but Hitchens’ assurances that a unilateral US intervention in Libya (and unilateral is what it would be) would “purchase undreamed-of goodwill” is based on the West’s own desires, not a clear-headed assessment of history and the tangled politics of warfare. No ones suggesting a ground invasion of Libya. But the last time I heard such a bipartisan call for war- and that’s the only term for military operations that kill people- and assurances of grateful thanks from the oppressed was 2003. The overarching lesson of the last half century of American foreign policy is that conflicts, especially civil wars, are easy to enter but hard to leave. Maybe Libya is different, but caution is rarely overrated.