Picking Sides in a Civil War: Libya

More questions about the establishment of a no-fly zone

Libya is clearly not Egypt or Tunisia and protests there have escalated, transforming the demonstrations into a full civil war – albeit a civil war in which one side is far better equipped. With the recent news that Qaddafi forces have regained control of the cities of Zuwarah and Ras Lanuf, the calls in the west for intervention in what is clearly a drastic military imbalance are growing. The official US policy, on the other hand, remains more tempered. Despite the recent gains by Qaddafi, I remain skeptical of a US imposed no-fly zone (NFZ) and certainly of more direct use of military force.

Of course, there are other alternatives to direct military actions that could be taken in order to isolate Qaddafi and help the rebellion. In addition to the international and unilateral (US and EU, for example), Libya has been kicked out of the UN Human Rights Council as well as suspended from the Arab League. The US has moved warships close to Libyan waters as a contingency option, France has officially recognized the Interim Transitional Council, and the US has sent an envoy to meet with leaders of the uprising as well. However, the Obama administration is very wary of engaging Qaddafi without international backing legitimized by the UN Security Council, saying that the US will only act “in consultation . . . with the international community.”

Importantly, there are reservations about the use of the US military by international actors from across the region. The Washington Post notes that in addition to the predictable concerns from Russia and China, there are crucial disagreements among Arab and African leaders: “Arab and African governments have expressed serious reservations about granting the authority to use force, as has Russia. China’s U.N. envoy, Li Baodong, told reporters Wednesday that Beijing wants the dispute to be resolved through dialogue.” Although wary of Qaddafi’s military advantages, the Obama administration understands the constraints of regional opinion and has gone as far as ruling out air strikes.

While diplomatic and economic pressure builds on Libya, the US and most of the west remain undecided on the question of military intervention. While many calling for a NFZ lack either the ability to see the restrictions of such a move, others are simply the written equivalent of drunken babbling. Fortunately, David Frum has been able to argue persuasively for the imposition of a NFZ, contrasting the US response in Egypt with that in Libya and warning of a contagion effect in other countries.

Unfortunately, as George Will points out, there are simply too many questions and unknowns with the implementation of a NFZ. While many have been discussed here before, some are new:

  • What lesson should be learned from the fact that Europe’s worst atrocity since the Second World War – the massacre by Serbs of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica – occurred beneath a no-fly zone?
  • U.S. forces might ground Gaddafi’s fixed-wing aircraft by destroying runways at his 13 air bases, but to keep helicopter gunships grounded would require continuing air patrols, which would require the destruction of Libya’s radar and anti-aircraft installations. If collateral damage from such destruction included civilian deaths – remember those nine Afghan boys recently killed by mistake when they were gathering firewood – are we prepared for the televised pictures?
  • Because of what seems to have been the controlling goal of avoiding U.S. and NATO casualties, the humanitarian intervention – 79 days of bombing – against Serbia in Kosovo was conducted from 15,000 feet. This marked the intervention as a project worth killing for but not worth dying for. Would intervention in Libya be similar? Are such interventions morally dubious?

Ross Douthat wonders – returning to Frum – what the implications would be if the US implemented a NFZ – an act of war – and Qaddafi still succeeded. If the US is able to refrain from mission-creep and keep boots off the ground, Qaddafi is still capable of defeating the uprising and thus will be able to claim victory over America. Even without his air force, Qaddafi has a much more powerful land army than the rebels, meaning that – again – Srebrenica II can not be prevented by a NFZ. This point is well understood by military veterans and experienced analysts Andrew Exum and Anthony Shadid. Despite all of this, the question of American interest remains.

Of course, there is the moral argument that it is in America’s interest to intervene to back the oppressed against the tyrant, but at what cost. After the intervention debacle in Somalia, Americans are seemingly allergic to the American casualties in interventions (returning to Will’s third question). What will happen if an American pilot gets killed or captured? The Economist reports that Qaddafi possesses a mass of Soviet era, Russian and possibly more modern surface to air missiles (SAMs) that could threaten allied aircraft, meaning – as Defense Secretary Gates noted – the implementation of a NFZ would require an extensive bombing campaign to destroy Libyan air-defense capabilities.

Libya is in trouble. The rebellion is facing a crisis and Qaddafi is gaining ground and retaking cities, causing many to panic and to demand western action. As Daniel Serwer notes, though, action and military actions are completely separate concepts. The US and its allies in the west should be acting in order to help the resistance fighters and to harm the Qaddafi loyalists, but implementing a certainly dangerous, possibly ineffective NFZ and committing western forces to an unjust military campaign in a third Muslim country while there remain alternatives seems, to me, like an unwise decision.

Photo from AOL

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8 thoughts on “Picking Sides in a Civil War: Libya

  1. If the imposition of NFZ is not wise then US is faced with a moral dilemma. should US leave Gaddafi continue crushing the rebel just in the name of US interest or lessons from historical blunders(in Kosovo)? While to me it is just one of the hypocritical stands of US government with regards to tyrants. The world needs a united stand against tyranny of what ever sort. Gaddafi is killing people to keep his power and doesn’t care how much is lost in terms of human material resources. This is what should be kept in mind when ever a decision is going to be made regarding the issue.

    1. Of course the US is faced with a moral dilemma. However, a NFZ would be rather ineffective (it would stop air craft, sure, but not tanks and heavy artillery which is more useful to Qaddafi). So the US implements a NFZ and the killing continues. Does the US face another moral dilemma, ie send in ground troops or watch the killings? The US position is extremely hypocritical – and I recognize that. However, it makes no sense for the US to engage with just a NFZ – such a move is simply appeasing those that want the US to ‘do something.’ Effective intervention will require a lot more than the US (gov’t and people) is willing to do.

  2. A NFZ is just a step among many that needed to be taken. Where was the world when US invaded Iraq( which was for good) in the name of (albeit allegedly) harboring WMD? The world including US has a better reason to stop the killing. In situation like this, We need to think with our hearts as well for humanitarian reasons.

    1. There is certainly a better case for intervening in Libya than Iraq, but that, I think, has more to do with the poor case for invading Iraq. Morally, there is no doubt that something needs to be done in Libya. I simply think that that something should not involve the military. From a selfish US point of view, there is little to be gained by spending billions (according to a recent report) and risking American lives in Libya (sounds heartless, I know, but I’m speaking from a strictly realist view here). From a human point of view there is much that can be done to support the rebels without potentially undermining their cause with the use of the military. There are mixed reports on whether or not the US military would be welcomed by Arabs (see latest post, link to Lynch) and near unanimous rejection of anything other than a NFZ.

      NFZ is not enough, but Libyans and the Arab world do not want more. Is it worth implementing the NFZ? I don’t know. I am in favor of a full push of diplomatic, economic and logistical support for the rebels, including humanitarian supplies, radar jamming, intelligence and more.

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