Today, the Arab League joined a chorus of other world organizations and countries, including Britain and France, in calling for the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya. Much of the recent debate over a no-fly zone–here in the States and worldwide–has centered around the ease or difficulty with which it can be carried out. For instance, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a prominent voice in this debate–has expressed reservations about a no-fly zone, arguing that it would require a "major operation" to knock out Libya’s air defenses and clear the skies.
Meantime, a recent column by Nick Kristof offers representative example of the other side in the debate. Put simply, the U.S. ought to be able to implement and enforce a no-fly zone against a "third-rate military power" like Libya. Quoting General Merrill McPeak, Kristof writes: "Just flying a few jets across the top of the friendlies would probably be enough to ground the Libyan Air Force, which is the objective....If we can’t do this, what can we do? I think it would have a real impact. It might change their calculation of who might come out on top. Just the mere announcement of this might have an impact."
This debate, however, ignores two key points. First, by many accounts, Gaddafi has been able to inflict damage on the opposition primarily because of his ground forces, tanks, and weaponry. Surprisingly, Libya’s warplanes and aircraft have actually played a small role in the conflict so far. With this mind, a no-fly zone would only marginally enhance the safety and security of people on the ground and do little to impact the balance of forces on the battlefield.
Second, to the extent a no-fly zone can prove useful, is it too late to go ahead with it? The opposition gained the early advantage, but the tide has sharply turned this week: Gaddafi and his forces now have the momentum, recapturing cities and causing increasingly more death and destruction. The opposition is down, morale is low. It is becoming apparent that the most the opposition can hope for is a stalemate, with Libya fractured into two parts. It would have been far better to implement a no-fly zone a week ago, when the opposition had the military advantage. For at that point, it would have sent a strong signal to Gaddafi that his forces were not going to be victorious, which, in turn, might have paved the way for serious negotiations to end the conflict and Gaddafi’s grip on power. Moreover, it likely would have caused a number of more people (civilians, military personnel, government officials, etc.)–many more than the initial wave–to side with the opposition, perhaps enough to turn the conflict decisively into the opposition’s favor.
Another option is to arm the rebels. Here, the goal is to tip the balance of forces in the opposition’s favor so that side could eventually either win outright on the battlefield, thereby imposing a settlement on Gaddafi and his loyalists, or gain enough of a military advantage to force Gaddafi to negotiate on its terms. Surely, this option does remedy a flaw in the no-fly zone idea, in that it directly targets the reason the opposition is struggling. But do we really want to arm an unorganized, rag-tag group of people who we know little about (their intentions, motivations; whether they have ties to terror or other unsavory groups)? I would think that America’s experience in Afghanistan during the 1980s might give everyone second thoughts before going ahead with this idea.
The West’s, and the America’s in particular, current approach to Libya–with its emphasis on tracking and freezing Gaddafi’s assets, forming an international coalition against Gaddafi, cultivating ties to the opposition, and distributing humanitarian relief, among other things–is relatively low-cost and cautious. By design, it is somewhat passive and not likely to produce speedy changes in Libya–at least not the kind of changes that the West prefers. But this only begs many questions.
For instance, I wonder what would trigger an increase in the West’s level of effort. Presumably, more violence, right? But how much more violence? And how would the West adjust its current approach if Libya turns especially bloody? What if the opposition makes a comeback, seizing towns and slaughtering pro-Gaddafi civilians and forces along the way. Is this acceptable? Additionally, how will the West respond if Gaddafi manages to maintain his hold on at least part of the country? France has already recognized the opposition’s transitional government; will the U.S. and other countries do likewise? Ultimately, what kind of price is the U.S. willing to pay to help oust Gaddafi?