One of the unfortunate imperatives of public life is that when something is the lead story, you think you've got to be doing something about it. Not just have an opinion on it. Be doing something about it.
Volcano erupts? Prepare a news release on the new anti-volcano policy.
Zombies are multiplying? Introduce anti-zombie legislation.
Well, Libya's been on the front page for a month now. Demonstrations. Civil unrest. Army attacks, etc. So our world leaders think that they've got to be doing something about it.
Hence the Libya no-fly zone.
Here is a link to UN Security Resolution 1973, authorizing the Libya no-fly zone. It shows a laudable, albeit rather repetitive, concern for civilian well being. It also completely fails to explain how a no-fly zone will ensure the safety of civilians.
The Libyan Air Force hasn't received a major delivery of new aircraft in 22 years. Roughly three-quarters of its "air"craft can't fly.
It is true that the Libyan Air Force, such as it is, has been deployed. But the serious threat to civilians in Libya is not from the Libyan Air Force. It's from the government security forces on the ground. A no-fly zone does not take away their guns, or their artillery.
For outsiders like us, there are two questions to answer:
(1) Do you want Gaddafi in or out?
(2) Either way, what are you willing to do about it?
Here are my answers:
(1) Out, because Gaddafi is a dictator who has stunted the development of his country and its people (although in a list of the 5000 things that are most important to America, I'd have to rank this close to the bottom, even if it is on the evening news every night).
(2) Economic sanctions, including extending the de facto oil embargo and asset freeze that already are in effect.
And it's likely that an oil embargo/asset freeze will work. Oil is 95% of Libya's exports, and 25% of GNP. Libya has around four years of oil revenue in the bank, but with an asset freeze and economic sanctions, that becomes meaningless. Whatever the result in the streets, as soon as Gaddafi runs out of money, he's gone.
But a no-fly zone? In the case of Libya, that's a tactic in search of a strategy. The Yiddish word for it is "shmei," roughly translated as aimless strolling around. A no-fly zone is basically just looking like you're doing something to remove Gaddafi, at the cost of $60 million in a day (which was the cost of the first day's worth of cruise missiles launched).
The last time we tried this, in Iraq, we had to sustain it for 12 years. At enormous effort and expense. And it didn't bring down Saddam at all.
More fundamentally, a no-fly zone in Libya feeds the dangerous fantasy that every problem has a military solution. That the answer to the use of force is the use of more force. That if a hammer doesn't drive that nail in, try a howitzer.
It was Mao Tse-Tung who said that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Do we really want Mao's principles running our foreign policy?
"I said you wanna be startin' somethin'
You got to be startin' somethin'
I said you wanna be startin' somethin'
You got to be startin' somethin'"
~ Michael Jackson