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The Libyan No-Fly Zone: A New Paradigm for Humanitarian Intervention and the Reinforcement of Democracy

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Since the January 14 overthrow of Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the subsequent February 11 toppling of Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak via campaigns of mass civil disobedience, the socio-political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa has been dramatically, and perhaps permanently, altered. Among the smoldering remains of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes lie shattered neo-Orientalist preconceptions of the various Arab peoples as only being capable of being governed by foreign-supported dictatorships or theocracies, or being inherently submissive, complacent, apolitical, or simply apathetic to their internal conditions. On the contrary, the masses of Arab citizenry (and especially the youth) have collectively braved tear gas, boiling water cannons, rubber-coated steel bullets, and even live ammunition in order to uphold their right to have a voice; in order to simply share with the world their hopes, dreams and aspirations for their nations' future.

While the pro-democracy struggle in Libya also began as a popular campaign of nonviolent resistance against the 42-year-old rule of Muammar Gaddafi, the regime's unprecedented brutal crackdown on the opposition soon inspired an armed revolutionary struggle between supporters of Gaddafi's old guard and a broad coalition of Libyan citizenry seeking to replace the entire regime. After enjoying two weeks of steady gains, the revolution suffered a series of losses as Gaddafi's well-equipped legions of mercenaries, heavy armor, aircraft, and naval ships launched a brutal two-pronged counter-offensive which recaptured almost the entire western half of the country (with the city of Misurata still desperately holding out) while simultaneously threatening the heart of the revolution in the eastern city of Benghazi at the expense of hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties. In the face of these staggering obstacles, the Libyan people have looked to the international community to translate their international condemnation of Gaddafi as an "illegitimate ruler" into concrete actions with a tangible, meaningful impact on the ground. Speaking towards that hope, one of the leading figures amongst the opposition, Abdul Fatah Younis, has called for the imposition of an international no-fly zone as well as a naval blockade in order to "level the playing field."

After weeks of deliberation following a concerted international call for action (including support from the Arab League for a no-fly zone), the UN Security Council finally voted 10-0 (with the 5 abstentions including China, India, Brazil, and Russia) in support of UNSC Resolution 1973 with a mandate for a no-fly zone utilizing all measures short of an invasion to "protect civilians and civilian-populated areas." US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice declared:

"This resolution should send a strong message to Colonel Gaddafi and his regime that the violence must stop, the killing must stop and the people of Libya must be protected and have the opportunity to express themselves freely."

This is certainly a considerable departure from the previous position of the Obama administration which had been extremely wary of being mired into yet another conflict in a Muslim country. Indeed there have already been many analogies made comparing any international interventions in Libya to the ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, such comparisons overlook several critical differences between the former cases and the ongoing international operations over Libyan skies. For one, the war in both Afghanistan and Iraq are asymmetric conflicts in which our enemies have no standing army, but instead consist of guerrilla outfits blending in with the population in order to continue operating undetected. Under such unfortunate circumstances typical of asymmetric warfare, civilian casualties are virtually guaranteed. In contrast, Gaddafi possesses conventional army, naval, and air forces along with fixed military infrastructure consisting of army, naval, and air bases, radar and air defense installations, artillery sites, etc. Indeed in most theaters of the conflict, large concentrations of his forces are literally out in the open exposed amongst Libya's desert landscape and can be attacked with virtually no innocent casualties.

Yet even more crucially, there is another pivotal difference: The Afghan and Iraqi people have always been deeply divided in their opinions of ongoing US operations in their countries. In stark contrast, while the military-civil body of the Libyan Opposition remains opposed to a physical occupation, they have been virtually pleading for outside intervention in the form of a no-fly zone, naval blockade, as well as humanitarian and material support. Certainly given Gaddafi's alarming successes in both the western and eastern fronts as well as his threats of storming Benghazi and granting "no mercy to any traitors", it may not be enough to simply enforce a no-fly zone, but to not only provide air cover for advancing revolutionary forces but also to actively arm and train them to effectively defeat the remaining battalions of well-armed and well-trained mercenaries and elite army units who have remained loyal to the regime. As Younis proudly declared in the same interview with Al Jazeera English, "The Libyan people are ready to fight for their own liberty and view it as an honor to shed their blood for their homeland. We simply need the tools to do the job."

Additionally, there is considerable consternation about potential casualties. While an open invasion could indeed by costly in terms of American and allied lives and resources, the enforcement of even an enhanced no-fly zone designed to assist the revolutionaries in their campaign against Gaddafi's regime can be accomplished with virtually no bloodshed. In 1986, the US Navy and Air Force executed a series of stunning tactical strikes against the Gaddafi regime (including targeting Gaddafi's headquarters in Tripoli) with the loss of only a single F-111 Aardvark jet. Since then, American military technology has vastly improved while Gaddafi's Soviet-era warplanes and air defense equipment continue to rust. Indeed through its unparalleled UAV and missile capacity alone, the American military retains the ability to eradicate Gaddafi's military capabilities without the loss of a single American life. If the US continues to bolster the scope of its operations with support from NATO, the Arab League, and the UN, then the lives of millions of Libyans will continue to be saved from Gaddafi's wrath.

Likewise civilian casualties have been remarkably low, as have incidents of "friendly fire" against the Libyan revolutionaries. Indeed even in the single instance of the latter, the revolutionaries have refrained from blaming the coalition and on the contrary have remained extremely vocal in their continued support for the NATO mission.

Finally, there have been loud voices decrying as inconsistent at best, and blatantly hypocritical at worst, for the US and international community's decision to intervene in the case of Libya but to continue the policy of noninterference in the cases of other countries in the Arab world (particularly regarding long-time US-allies Bahrain and Yemen). Towards that sentiment, I simply believe it is far too premature to consider military intervention as 1) those nations thankfully have not broken out into armed conflict; and 2) there have been no concerted calls for outside intervention from the protesters in those countries in the first place.

Nevertheless, I believe something definitely ought to be done by the international community to support the people of all of these nations as they struggle for freedom and liberty like their fellow Egyptian, Tunisian, and Libyan brothers and sisters. Towards that endeavor, I believe extending diplomatic and moral support for their cause is a vital first step. In the especially politically sensitive yet alarming case of Bahrain, I advocate for the US to utilize the presence of the 5th Fleet in order to oversee far greater restraint from the Bahraini security forces while urging Saudi Arabia and the UAE to withdraw their occupation forces from the island. We must not lose the moral imperative in any nation, especially one in which thousands of our fighting men and women are stationed in. However regarding the specific case of Libya, the notion that we should not act to confront injustice and do good in situation A because we haven't acted in a similar manner for Situation B, C, and et al. is simply a fallacy on both a rational as well as a moral level.

In President Obama's last State of the Union Address, he repeatedly urged the need for America to "win the future." While he was primarily referring to solving domestic issues through the spirit of innovation, cooperation, and long-term vision, the same mantra can be applied to revamping the core nature of modern American foreign policy which has evolved very little from its realpolitik Cold War roots. Rather than relying on only one-dimensional schemas focusing only on stability and security (such as viewing the various countries of the Arab and greater Muslim world as only vital energy partners and security assets in the war on terror), the entire notion of what is in America's national interest ought to be expanded to encompass a more holistic, proactive, and forward-thinking approach. Maintaining vibrant and lasting relations with countries starts with cultivating meaningful and dynamic connections with their citizenry. It means not simply relying on lofty yet hollow platitudes, but actively upholding the core principles of democracy and people power by encouraging and upholding their peoples' inalienable democratic rights. The adoption of this paradigm in American foreign policy will hopefully begin with the active assistance of the people of the Middle East and North Africa as they struggle for their liberation.