“No Fly Zone” Over Libya Is Premature Talk, But Preparations Are Timely Now (3/03)     Print Email

A flurry of calls for a “no fly zone” in Libya is premature.  The idea, however appealing as a measure to deprive the Libyan leader of airpower against civilian rebels, immediately encountered objections from Western military commanders, starting with those in the U.S.

Robert Gates, the US defense secretary, said in Washington:  “Let’s just call a spade a spade: A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses” – in effect, an air invasion starting a war that the U.S. and its allies would have to pursue until it was won.

Emphasizing the diplomatic obstacles to a Western-led intervention, France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, said that a no fly zone could only be implemented under a mandate from the UN Security Council and with regional cooperation --  presumably meaning Arab support, which remains elusive. At the UN, Russia opposes any “no fly resolution” and Turkey has said that NATO should not take such actions. So any effective actions would presumably have to come from a “coalition of the willing” – and that ought to include some Arab military contribution such Egypt’s air force and perhaps Algeria’s.

Despite these political obstacles, U.S. and European leaders – notably in France and Britain (and presumably Italy) – have stressed that it is time to start planning the political and military steps that would permit effective intervention if Colonel Gaddafi carries out his blustering threats of carnage to protect his rule, presumably including the bombing of civilian targets. In the U.S., senior Congressional leaders have called for a no fly zone, even a unilateral one if necessary.  Mr. Juppé agrees, up to a point, saying that “a threat to bomb civilian populations is illegal, and we must prevent it from happening.” But he stressed that “it can’t just be Western countries.”

With this in mind, France and Britain are reportedly working on “ambitious proposals” to deal with the Libyan situation and, according to William Hague, UK foreign minister, there are “no differences” between Paris and London on the measures needed to implement a no fly zone.

But a meeting between Juppé and Hogue produced nothing specific about the possible timing or “trigger event” or even political strategy for launching a no fly zone.  The unspoken presumption seems to be that the West and some Arab allies need to be prepared for quick response in the event of any major civilian massacre by Libyan air raids on rebel-held areas, particularly if the atrocity is recorded on Western satellites tracking events on the ground in Libya. Bloodshed on that scale (recalling war crimes in Rwanda and at Srebrenica in Bosnia in the 1990s) could produce an outcry in Western public opinion demanding action.

Even then, there would be a risk of backlash against any “Western” or “neo-colonial” action that some factions in the Middle East are bound to depict as a cover for a hidden agenda.  Even though Gaddafi is despised and ridiculed in his own region, much of the public opinion there remains wary of the West. Even publicly pro-Western regimes around Saudi Arabia have reservations about seeing another Arab leader driven from power as a repeat of Saddam Hussein’s ouster by Western military action.

In fact, all of Gaddafi’s enemies -- neighboring Arab regimes, European countries, the U.S., and the Libyan rebels themselves – want an outcome in which the Libyan leader is toppled by his own people. In the reticence to intervene, there are particular national sensibilities:many Europeans feel guilty (and therefore squeamish) about action in Libya because of their own special ties over the years to Gaddafi. Washington has its own reservations, essentially wariness of another military intervention on the heels of Iraq and amid an ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

So, as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said of a no fly zone, “I think we are a long way from making that decision.”

The military demands of a no fly zone are probably not as difficult or onerous as U.S. and European commanders claim they are. Gaddafi’s air force is not large and his pilots’ loyalty to Gaddafi might fray quickly if they suddenly faced some significant risk of being shot down.

Although Libya has potentially dangerous ground-to-air missiles, the U.S. and its allies presumably have ways of avoiding and even crippling them without actually having to bomb missile sites  (which Gaddafi could pack with civilian “human shields").

More problematical than his fighter-bombers, Gaddafi's big fleet of Soviet-made military helicopters pose a bigger threat. They could provide rapid mobility for pro-Gaddafi military units, and would be a significant asset for the government if a civil war developed. Compared to the fighter-bombers that have engaged in few insignificant air-raids, low-flying helicopters would be hard for U.S. reconnaissance planes and satellites to detect amid ground clutter. Helicopters scattered across Libya, without needing full-fledged airstrips, would also demand denser air patrols on station over Libya.

And even with a no fly zone to hamper Gaddafi’s forces, any rebel opposition would probably need more help to achieve victory – presumably weapons smuggled from the West and also covert Western expertise to help the untrained Libyans operate them and to give them electronic intelligence.

For the moment, Western governments, despite their humanitarian and rhetorical help for the rebels, recoil from an open-ending commitment of this sort, especially when they apparently lack any sense of how any successor regime might coalesce.

Challenging this official caution, many political voices in Washington and in European capitals are urging their countries to “get on the side of history” by supporting the Libyan rebels now as a gesture of atonement for decades of doing business with Arab dictators. In Libya in particular, Western governments turned a blind eye on Gaddafi’s abuse of his own people as the quid pro quo for his latter-day help against international terrorists and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

But so far, both the U.S. and EU governments seem intent on keeping out of the fray while promising to do more to help with institution-building and more widespread prosperity and opportunities in North Africa once the situation is clarified. It is an approach that seems roughly similar to the Western posture in 1989 in Eastern Europe, where Western caution over the collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by success in rebuilding the new democracies.  What the West wants in to avoid in Libya is any intervention that smacks of the invasion described as an imposition of democracy on Iraq.

The political caution seems wise so far. Of course, it could evaporate from the effect of public opinion if a major atrocity ignites outrage in the Middle East and the West.

The hardest scenario of all is a stalemate in Libya, with Gaddafi managing to cling to power in part of the country and rebels in the rest remaining unable to unite and drive him from power. That would strain oil markets and test the management of global public expectations in ways that would probably impose a radical rethink on the current strategy and a new international political approach.

European Affairs