Too Little Too Late or Just Too Little?

A NFZ is not too late, it's just not enough

I can’t seem to stop talking about the debate over western military intervention in Libya. Though, to be fair, neither can anyone else. As those loyal to the regime push further east, it seems as though the debate over a no-fly zone (NFZ) has transformed from a question over “if” to “if its worth it.” Mark Thompson in Time argues that at this point a NFZ in useless, though two weeks ago it would have done wonders. Imposition of a NFZ now, as rebels retreat, would simply ensure the prolongation and continuation of a bloody stalemate. John Lee Anderson points out that a NFZ would be simply symbolic and Anne-Marie Slaughter calls for a NFZ under the pretext that the US has an interest in a “new beginning” for Libya and that the Arab World (aka the Arab League) has called for western help. Eliot Cohen laments that the west missed the perfect time to intervene, “when small push can have the greatest psychological effect.” So is it too late to intervene? Absolutely not. The problem is that successful intervention would have needed to be more than a NFZ. Qaddafi would still have the military power on the ground to crush the rebels, meaning that the implementation of a NFZ two weeks ago would have undoubtedly led to calls for more effective and direct military incursions.

I have already stated why a NFZ would be ineffective, notably the lack of political will, popular support, and limited aims (and more). The problem is not that a NFZ has not been implemented in a timely fashion, it is that a NFZ is not enough. If the west is going to commit to military intervention in Libya, more dramatic steps will be needed, including bombing missions and potentially boots on the ground. As these two possibilities seem unlikely, it is unwise to implement a NFZ. Rather the west should be looking to alternatives to military intervention. Look back at several of my posts for arguments against a NFZ. I’m busy today so I just want to point to a few things:

  • Michael Collins Dunn has a great post on the logistical constraints of a NFZ including the location of bases and aircraft carriers that could be used for a NFZ. He also talks about the consequences of being stuck implementing another long-term NFZ (in case of a stalemate) while being engaged in two other conflicts (ie where is the manpower?) Finally, he talks about the size of Libya and the immense difficulty of covering a zone that large.
  • Jonathon Wright gives us nine good reasons to stay out of Libya, including mission creep, unknown levels of support from within Libya, and the illegality of an unsanctioned NFZ.
  • The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has a report on the projected cost of a NFZ over Libya, estimating a full NFZ to cost up to $8.8 billion over six months. It does offer a third possibility of imposing a NFZ over coastal cities using sea and sir assets off the coast of Libya, thus negating the prerequisite of bombing Qaddafi’s air defense systems.
  • Marc Lynch warns that despite the Arab League’s support for a NFZ, actual support among Arabs fro any kind of western intervention is much lower and such intervention could dampen the revolutions across the region: “Every Arab opinion leader and Libyan representative I spoke with at the conference told me that “American military intervention is absolutely unacceptable.” Their support for a No Fly Zone rapidly evaporates when discussion turns to American bombing campaigns” – a notion echoed by Steve Clemons.

The idea of an offshore NFZ that doesn’t require American bombs is certainly much more appealing that a full or even partial one. Yet this solves only one of the problems with western intervention. America and the west would still be intervening in yet another Arab state, perhaps ineffectually. As Lynch and Clemons note, the specter of Iraq and Afghanistan is real for Arabs (and, as polls show, Americans too) and the implementation of a NFZ would only stop Qaddafi’s air attack and do nothing against his strong, armored ground forces while opening the rebels up to the accusation of western political ventriloquism.

Like Lynch (as I mentioned earlier) I am in favor of the US government doing more, not the US military. While I would also suggest pushing for the US to provide major humanitarian support, including medical supplies and food, Lynch has a nice summary of alternative US strategies:

That doesn’t mean the U.S. should do nothing. The administration should move quickly and aggressively to recognize the provisional Libyan government, release the frozen Libyan assets to that provisional government, and allow the flow of weapons to them. It should push for ever tighter targeted sanctions against Qaddafi, and continue to mobilize international consensus against his regime to make sure that he remains an absolute pariah without access to international institutions, revenues, or support. It could jam Qaddafi’s communications and provide intelligence, and more. The debate should move away from an exclusive focus on military action. That is a dead end where we have been before, and should not be going again.

Photo from Times of Malta

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6 thoughts on “Too Little Too Late or Just Too Little?

  1. I see a similar problem in Libya as the US has just faced in Egypt. Sure the leaders of both were ruthless and nasty – and make a mockery of democracy. But Chomsky was right. There never seems to be any case for intervention where self interest is not served in some way. Given the Pew Research group find their surveys tell us there is strong anti US feeling amongst the majority in both countries, why would the US want to install a majority Government when the current corrupt Government has been at least partially serving US interests. It also seems to me that there is a strong difference between the East and West in Libya when it comes for support for Gaddafi

    1. The major difference between Libya and Egypt is that Mubarak was propped up by the United States and provided concrete benefits for America (ie maintaining peace with Israel and extradition/torture services, among other things). Libya – and more specifically Qaddafi – holds very little (tangible) strategic interest for the US. Sure, an open government might be better for oil, but the US purchases very little oil from Libya. Chomsky is right in every intervention in the way charity is self-serving (you feel better about yourself). US intervention in Libya would be to make another ally in the new government and to feel good about the national moral standing (both worthy causes…)

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