Is a no-fly zone what Libyans want?

Jerry Haber observes:

[L]iberal interventionists are highly selective in their moral outrage, and … suffer from a “Saving-Private-Ryan” complex – they will intervene to save people with whom they identify, people on their side. But if the civilians happen to be on other the side of their tribal divide, they become silent.

Indeed. None of those now calling for a no-fly zone over Libya have called for a no-fly zone over Gaza. The difference clearly hinges on whether one has a greater affiliation with those dropping the bombs or those getting bombed.

But does this shed any light on the question of whether a no-fly zone should be enforced over Libya? Not really.

If we reduce such questions to questions of affiliation then all we will ever do is look to see where “my people” stand. If enough progressives start calling for a no-fly zone, then suddenly it becomes the right thing. But if its advocates are all neocons or neo-liberals, then it can’t be right.

This isn’t analysis — it’s politics reduced to the expression of allegiance.

So, turning back to the question of a no-fly zone, let’s forget about whether Charles Krauthammer or Sarah Palin think it’s a good idea, and let’s at least expose the array of questions embedded in what is falsely being presented as a single question. The question is not simply, do you favor or oppose a no-fly zone being imposed over Libya?

The first question is: who, if anyone, has the capability to effectively impose a no-fly zone?

I can’t give an authoritative answer to that question, but I would assume that a combined NATO force would have the capacity — though I might be wrong, given the commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Arab League now backs a no-fly zone. If some of its members also contributed forces, this might diminish the perception that a no-fly zone was strictly a Western intervention.

The second question is: would a no-fly zone have a desirable impact on the civil war?

So far, Gaddafi does not seem to have relied heavily on his ability to bomb or fire missiles on his opponents, so even if a no-fly zone was already in place, it’s not clear that it would have had much impact on the fight thus far. Even so, if Benghazi ends up getting flattened, no one will be served by the hindsight that a no-fly zone could have prevented that from happening.

The third question is: on whose authority could a no-fly zone be implemented?

This can be viewed as a legal question but it’s really a question of political legitimacy.

As with so many good intentions, there is a narcissistic current underlying many of the current calls for intervention:

  • the perceived need that “we must do something” even when it’s not clear that the proposed course of action can be implemented or will be effective
  • the need to promote the image of the United States as a force for good in the world
  • the need to show the world that the US is capable of limiting the power of tyrants
  • the need for prominent figures to assume a proactive political posture in order to sharpen the contrast with their political opponents

None of these serves well as a lens for focusing on the actual needs of the Libyan people.
In an editorial, The Guardian notes:

Some Libyan rebels have called for a no-fly zone, but until now – and this may change – the mood of the Libyan uprising is that this is their fight and their fight alone. Quite apart from the unwarranted legitimacy a bombing campaign would (once again) confer on the Libyan leader among his rump support in Tripoli and the damage it would do to attempts to split his camp, a major western military intervention could have unforeseen political consequences for the very forces it would be designed to support. A no-fly zone saved lives in Kurdish northern Iraq, but failed to protect the Shias in the south under Saddam Hussein. The moral strength of the Libyan rebels and their political claim to represent the true voice of the people both rest partly on the fact that, like the Egyptians and the Tunisians, they have come this far alone. The revolt is theirs, they are no one else’s proxy, and the struggle is about ending tyranny rather than searching for new masters. Even if Gaddafi’s forces succeed in checking the advance of rebel forces, and the civil war becomes protracted, it is the home-grown nature of this revolt that contains the ultimate seeds of the destruction of Gaddafi’s regime. Thus far, it is Gaddafi and his sons who have had to import hired guns from abroad.

The need to maintain a self-reliant revolution can be overstated. I doubt that any of the weaponry of any value that either side is using right now was manufactured in Libya. This is a fight engaging Libyan hands and hearts but using foreign arms. What those outside the fight must attend to above all else is the Libyan voice.

President Obama has already said that Muammar Gaddafi has lost his legitimacy as Libya’s leader, so an important and necessary precursor to the whole debate about providing military or non-military assistance to Libya’s revolutionaries, is formal recognition of their leadership: the Interim National Transitional Council in Benghazi.

The Council has formed an executive team headed by Dr Mahmoud Jebril Ibrahim El-Werfali and Dr Ali Aziz Al-Eisawi who will represent Libya’s foreign affairs and have been delegated the authority to negotiate and communicate with all members of the international community and to seek international recognition.

The Transitional Council’s third decree dated March 5, ends: “we request from the international community to fulfil its obligations to protect the Libyan people from any further genocide and crimes against humanity without any direct military intervention on Libyan soil.”

That seems to leave open the question about whether a no-fly zone is being sought.

If Obama want to show he’s a man of action, the most decisive thing he could do right now is recognize the Transitional Council and send an official US representative to Benghazi to find out exactly what forms of assistance the revolutionaries seek and see what kinds of assistance the US and its allies might be able to provide.

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3 thoughts on “Is a no-fly zone what Libyans want?

  1. Colm O' Toole

    I personally would be against a no fly zone given all that it would entail.

    The example of the no fly zone over Kurdish Iraq during the 90’s has one difference over this current crisis and that is that when the US imposed the no fly zone Iraq’s air force and air defenses had already been destroyed in the 91 Gulf War. The US at the time had free reign to fly patrols over Iraq unhindered.

    In Libya as several officials have mentioned the US would have to bomb air defenses and bring down any fighters that ignored the no fly zone. Of course other factors no would come into play as well.

    – Russia and China are both against it. So would have to be done without a UN Security Council mandate putting the whole thing on shaky legal grounds.

    – The US being seen bombing another Muslim country (even if limited to air defenses and Libya’s airforce) wouldn’t go down well, even if its done for the best of reasons.

    – Would give Gaddaffi a major propaganda victory and the ability to portray an external threat to the country undermining the rebel cause.

    All in all probably best to use Saudi Arabia to funnel weapons (especially Anti-Tank, Anti Aircraft) to the rebels. Robert Fisk has a piece in the Independent talking about this secret plan put forward by Washington. Just awaiting a response by Saudi Arabia.

  2. Christopher Hoare

    I advocated assistance for the Free Libyans from the start — called a no-fly zone, but in intent enough air cover for the rebels that another Guernica could be avoided in Eastern Libya. There is still the unresolved issue of Qaddhafi’s poison gas stocks. I still maintain that air cover supplied by Arab League members, even if supported by Western infrastructure and logistics, would be an appropriate response from the world community against a murderous regime that imports mercenary goons to kill its own people. Qaddhafi’s regime is beyond the Pale.
    I also suggested, at the lowest point of Qaddhafi’s resistance to the protesters, that if a demonstration of anti-Qaddhafi air power filled the skies it would have resulted in a significant number of his supporters defecting. I admit that I didn’t consider or suggest whose air power was appropriate to use. I did expect that NATO or American AWACs would be needed to enable the demonstrating aircraft enough warning to defend themselves. Perhaps this was all a bit pie-in-the-sky.
    I still maintain that providing air cover for rebel forces in the east, does not require any air attacks on ground installations — they are already under rebel control. It may entail shooting down Qaddhafi aircraft, but only ones that intrude on the defended airspace. Again, the clear and very public demarcation of the limits to Qaddhafi’s power would have a strong effect on the morale of his goons. These men must support him for the money they will go home with — and the idea that they will not go home with any will encourage them to keep their heads down. (This must already be happening to some degree or the rag-tag rebels would not be routing trained mercenaries so effectively. Mercenaries are already the least reliable forces because they are the least committed.)
    I admire the Libyan rebels for wanting to do this on their own, but they are not in their own world alone. Their success or failure will have a profound effect upon all others who suffer under dictatorship and corrupt regimes. Looking at the Spanish Civil War again, the absence of western democratic support and the venality of European governments who were morally obligated to assist another democratically elected government provided immense encouragement to the Nazi and Fascist agenda that subsequently embroiled the whole world in war. While one cannot imagine that Qaddhafi’s success would lead to such a pass, the defeat of the opponents to his regime would be a sad blow to the newly awakened courage and dignity of those who take heart from the promise of change sweeping over the world.

  3. AMeshiea

    Christopher you afre entirely correct on many fronts. I do not hold out much hope for a regional solution or an Arab solution. I also do not expect a US solution and therefore a NATO solution but I may be wrong there.

    The idea that Ghaddaffi has a possible propoganda coup from US AIRspace aid is completely wrong. On the contrary an air-only approach would be precisely the otimal foreign policy strategy.

    Qaddafi’s support inside the country is so wafer-thin and dependent on his ability to show continued strength in suppressing any resistance is a pretty well understood fact inside the country.

    As a Libyan myself, I see anti-interventionist essays and it truly irritates me. So here is a short list of what would be welcomed by Libyan’s trying to defeat Qaddafi.

    1. A no-fly zone would NOT give Qaddafi more support but LESS. The mere idea that Western force will aid rebels will increase the rate at which his “followers” will defect to what they see as the winning side. The same can be said for targeted bombings, a tactic already called for by leaders of the rebel army.

    2. As the NYT ( recently suggested communications for the rebels can be boosted by flying signal re-routers and boosters allowing the rebels to coordinate attacks and defend against the better equipped Government forces.

    3. Similar to #2, jamming Government military communications would also be feasible and can be done from many miles away effectively blinding the fixed wing forces and potentially handicapping the attack coordination of the government forces

    4. Jam and disable all state media broadcasts especially but not limited to Libyan State TV. This would seriously hamper Qaddafi’s effort to demoralize the people in Tripoli who, like their brothers and sisters outside, would vastly prefer a nation without Qaddafi within it. This has the added advantage of silencing the Dictator.

    None of the above suggestions would likely cost a single foreign life, would not involve foreign intervention on the ground, and would greatly improve relations between the New Arab world and the West.

    How anyone can argue a hands-off approach in Libya, where the side of despotism is vastly better equipped and vastly more ruthless than any other Arab regime, is beyond me.

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