Middle East

Should “No-Fly Zones” Fly

An F/A 18C Hornet prepares to take off from the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2002 in the Persian Gulf. The war planes had the mission to patrol the no-fly zone in southern Iraq.What can be done to stop the human suffering in Libya? Yesterday, we wrote about the urgent humanitarian challenges. We highlighted how quick, decisive action can feed, clothe, shelter and give medical care to the suffering populace. But what about military measures like a no-fly zone? Would that be a more forceful way to stop the violence? Many in the U.S. Senate and in Europe apparently think so. Meanwhile the aircraft carrier strike group USS Enterprise, which had been chasing pirates, and the amphibious warships USS Ponce and USS Kearsarge, are heading to Mediterranean near Libya. Will they be used for a military action? Or for humanitarian efforts? Or is the U.S. just keeping it’s options open? Today we examine the downsides of the military approach.

We need to remember that a U.S./NATO no-fly zone could end up looking more like an act of war as peacekeeping operation. Earlier this week, before a panel in Congress, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was blunt. “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya”.  The Pentagon has said that a no-fly zone in Libya would need to be supported by “massive bombing” requiring hundreds of aircraft.   At a minimum a no-fly zone would include attacks on surface to air missile and radar sites. If the goal was not just to stop air attacks but to help dislodge Gaddafi from power,  strikes on other assets of the Libyan regime would mean an even wider bombing campaign. All this bombing would inevitably puts civilians in danger. Any so-called collateral damage would also be milked by the Gaddafi regime for propaganda advantage and broadcast immediately on CNN and Al Jazeera. But civilians are not the only ones at risk. The personnel enforcing the no-fly zone are in danger from both surface to air missiles and friendly fire. In 1994 in Iraq, two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by American F-15s killing 26 people. And let’s not forget, enforcing no-fly zones are very complex and very expensive military options. That money could be spent here at home or towards the massive humanitarian aid needed Libya.

But would the costs be worth it? It is tempting to think that massive airpower could easily topple a tin-pot dictator like Gaddafi. That is until the lessons of Afghanistan are remembered. After 10 years of fighting, NATO is still using the blunt instrument of bombs to try to dislodge the Taliban. On Tuesday, nine Afghan boys were killed gathering firewood. From NATO helicopters equipped with the latest high-tech equipment boys with sticks still look like insurgents.  Libya ultimately is not NATO’s fight. Defection of Gaddafi’s military units and tribes means that rebels now have both fighters and weapons. Undertaking military operations on the side of the rebels makes us foreign parties to a civil war and that could backfire by escalating the conflict. Personally, I admit I find it hard to let go of the natural human desire try to impact a conflict that is creating great human suffering. But we can’t fall prey to “just do something” thinking. It’s possible that the best course of action making the tough, humble choice to let the rebels fight their own battle.

While air power may be unable to determine the outcome of the conflict, no-fly zones have also been ineffective in preventing human rights violations on the ground. The Bosnian no-fly zone operation did nothing to prevent the Srebrenica massacre of 1995.  A no-fly zone failed to stop Saddam Hussein’s brutal crackdown in Southern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war. In fact, Hussein stayed in power for over a decade with no-fly zones over part of that country. A no fly zone could prevent Qaddafi’s use of jets from strafing civilians in rebel held areas. But there is not yet clear evidence that Qaddafi’s jets have been a major factor in the conflict. No-fly zones tend to focus on warplanes and do not address the use of helicopters by government forces that are a much more likely source of harm to civilians. And ultimately it is violence on the ground that creates the most human suffering. In Iraq, in Bosnia, and in Kosovo air power was unable to stop human rights abuses. Worse still, some analysts feel the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1999, with its 38,000 sorties (aircraft flights), tragically accelerated the ethnic cleansing that the air campaign was designed to stop.

Advocates of military power always seem to have amnesia about the inherent “escalation dynamic” of military power. Once a nation or a coalition is committed to military force, military engagement tends to escalate if the initial objectives are not achieved quickly. This has been true for the U.S. in Somalia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. For example, the air of brinkmanship that accompanied the decade long no-fly zone in Iraq in many ways gave to birth to 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The final problem with foreign intervention in Libya is the political big picture. The initial uprising in Libya is a part of a region wide revolution on behalf of dignity, democracy and self-determination. There have been mixed messages from rebel forces about this type of intervention. But “Western intervention” in an oil rich country could undermine the legitimacy of the rebel forces in Libya. Beyond Libya, Western intervention could send exactly the wrong message as the United States tries to reposition itself as a supporter of democratic movements after decades of support for the region’s autocrats.  Russian, Chinese and Turkish opposition to military intervention could even push the U.S. and other potential supporters of military action towards a “coalition of the willing” lacking in international legitimacy.  The best political option for a no-fly zone would be a regional Arab-led effort. Today, the Arab League suggested it could impose a no-fly zone in coalition with the African Union. From a geopolitical sense this is a far better option that NATO or U.S. action. Needless to say, an Arab-led no-fly zone wouldn’t do any better at escaping all the military and human rights problems associated with no-fly zones.

We need to be smart and take these concerns into account.  Given the pitfalls, the burden of proof should be on advocates of no-fly zones to demonstrate that they are likely to be effective in saving lives since military action should always be a last resort. But that doesn’t mean standing idly by while people suffer. There are many powerful humanitarian aid and diplomatic strategies we can use to support the people of Libya, some of which we outlined yesterday. If our forces in the Mediterranean can be used for peaceful disaster assistance, I for one would support that. But it’s time that we learn that the military tools in our tool box may be too dangerous, too unwieldy, too expensive, and too violent to scramble U.S. jets in the Middle East one more time.

Categories: Middle East

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