THE BLOG
03/14/2011 05:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Supporting a No-Fly Zone Is Still Fiddling: Responding to Anne-Marie Slaughter

anne marie slaughter twn.jpgMy friend Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and now back teaching at Princeton University, has written a compelling, passionate call for the US to immediately push for a UN Resolution to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. She outlines the reasons some are reticent about a no-fly zone, but in her response to critics, she doesn't solve the core problem that a no-fly zone doesn't help the Libyan opposition prevail.

While Slaughter doesn't refer to me specifically, her arguments tick through many of the issues I raised in this video commentary as well as from my essay on the BBC's site. Here too is a clip outlining some of these thoughts on Al Jazeera. I think she did a good job of listing the points that the no-fly zone opponents have been making.

Let me go quickly through and respond point by point. First of all, Anne-Marie cites Wes Clark's views that action in and around Libya are not core interests of the US and thus don't justify large scale military deployments. I disagree with Clark in the sense that the broad Middle East is of key strategic significance in the region -- and that our decisions with regard to Libya, or Bahrain, or Israel/Palestine, or Egypt now have immediate reverberating effects beyond the silo of that country. Oil and energy realities make the Middle East important to the US -- but Slaughter is right that human rights and democratic practice are also significant to support, though not definitive in my view. And I don't have much patience for the view that military intervention on one side of a civil war is the key to democratic outcomes.

Slaughter writes:

Now we have a chance to support a real new beginning in the Muslim world -- a new beginning of accountable governments that can provide services and opportunities for their citizens in ways that could dramatically decrease support for terrorist groups and violent extremism.

She is right, but sending in NATO aircraft to bomb Gaddafi's planes and runways -- and sending the US military into yet another cause -- only reinforces the mistaken notion that accountable governments are created via military intervention. I think that the state-building and civil society promoting efforts of NGOs, of international governmental bodies, and even nations like the US can help on the periphery of this enormous changes in the region -- but to think that "we" can deliver the change for Libyans is self-indulgent and takes the cameras off the brave protesters and puts them on US and NATO ships and airbases. A no-fly zone changes the frame in the region from youth movements seeking new opportunities, change, and the end to institutionalized indignity to a power play between Western military forces vs. authoritarians they have long tolerated.

Slaughter is right to mention Al Jazeera Director General Wadah Khanfar's claim that what is most important about change in the Middle East is that it has occurred without foreign intervention. She suggests that some (and I am one) believe that Western intervention allows Gaddafi to wrap himself in a nationalistic flag and to delegitimate his opposition as being tools being manipulated for Western ends. Slaughter discounts these issues because of calls by some in the Libya opposition for a no-fly zone.

I am in Doha now at the 6th Al Jazeera Forum and have met officials of the Libyan Opposition Council -- including the person formally charged now with the foreign affairs portfolio. What is clear is that the Libyan opposition is still finding its legs and has a number of voices. it is true that some have called for a no-fly zone because they are worried about being rolled back and what support from any source. But the leadership of the Council has "not" called for a no-fly zone.

What the Council wants, as I currently understand things, are:

1. The US to immediately recognize the Libyan opposition as the legitimate government of Libya. There is great ambivalence about the possible meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Paris because there is concern that this looks more like photo-ops for Clinton than the Opposition moving its interests forward, from their perspective. Interestingly, I was told that the Libya Opposition did not want to meet her in Paris -- but wanted to meet in Tunisia or Egypt and only wanted to meet her if the US recognized the Opposition's legitimacy.

2. Arms, arms, arms -- or at least get out of the way of arms being delivered. I'm not sure of the accuracy of this, but I was also told that there is a UN arms embargo currently in place against Libya, which encompasses the Opposition. Moammer Gaddafi has no problem, circumventing it, with ship loads of weapons coming from Syria and other nations -- but even France, which has recognized the Libyan Opposition as the legitimate government, is not delivering arms. According to representatives and activists from Libya at this conference, the Opposition is forfeiting gains to Gaddafi because they are literally running out of ammunition and bullets. They have nothing to fight with. If we want to move a UN resolution on Libya, perhaps repealing or setting aside this incumbent resolution could be moved forward and be less noxious for China and Russia.

3. Scramble and disrupt Gaddafi's communications system. Gaddafi is blocking Al Jazeera's signal inside the country -- but more importantly, he has the ability to disrupt some of the communications of the Opposition while maintaining the solvency of his own communications. Outside interests could immediately disrupt and scramble his own communications.

4. Cooperate on intelligence feeds on movements by Gaddafi's military and command staff. In part because the US does not know the Opposition well and has not recognized the government, we are not feeding useful intelligence to the Opposition.

ALL of these measures would have a lighter footprint that ships, planes, bombs, and other weapons systems that would remind and brand this revolution as delivered by Western forces.

I don't get why when there are real, doable measures that could immediately help those opposing Gaddafi without the downside risks of a population angry at the large scale Western military footprint or the potential for a Somalia-like "Black Hawk Down" incident which Anne-Marie Slaughter does not discuss that we don't move in that direction.

Anne-Marie debates Ivo Daalder in her piece on whether a no-fly zone would work or not. She doesn't acknowledge that the costly investment by the British and Americans in deploying a no-fly zone in Iraq really didn't cripple Saddam Hussein much. But more importantly, the question really should be is whether a no-fly zone gets the Opposition to a tilting point where they can succeed. The answer is no. A no-fly zone has become an emotional touch point for many who want to help the struggling and brave Libya Opposition -- but it doesn't change facts on the ground.

Slaughter is right that revolutions are messy and once the intoxication of change wears off, there are huge headaches, new conflicts, different political rivalries. But she says that if we allow Gaddafi to win and chop down young protesters, we will have been on the wrong side of things. Again, supporting a no-fly zone is emotional distraction "for us" and does little to help "them."

She doesn't deal with the reality that without somehow supporting the Opposition to force a "no drive zone" on Gaddafi's tanks and arming the rebels with intel and bullets, a no-fly zone will look in retrospect like self-indulgent impotence.

In the part of Anne-Marie Slaughter's article I least understand, she suggests that those fighting for their freedoms in Libya aren't trained, aren't mature enough essentially to handle the weapons that might be given to them. I don't agree with her. There are many leading the Opposition who were in fact part of Gaddafi's government. There are others fighting for their lives and futures who do learn fast. But essentially, they need ammo and RPGs immediately. Bigger stuff can be reviewed another time -- but she thinks that Benghazi could be lost somehow if we take the "arm the rebels with guns and intel" route.

I don't understand that. It's far more likely that Gaddafi will be emboldened by dithering and fiddling about a no-fly zone where the adjacent capacity to run a large scale military operation like that is still in doubt and with the possibility that Russia and China will drag out the process of a UN Resolution.

Thus, for moral posturing reasons, Slaughter suggests that even if a resolution doesn't get through the UN or if passed, that a no-fly zone not really change the military equation, that it was still the right thing to do.

There are many liberal interventionists and neoconservatives who are supporting a no-fly zone and major political personalities like former President Bill Clinton, former New Mexico Governor and former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, John McCain and others have supported a no-fly zone.

However, this stampede to a no-fly zone doesn't solve the core underlying issues that it isn't efficacious, that it could rob protesters of their own narrative and even of their political legitimacy, and doesn't give them the tools they really need to win.

I admire Anne-Marie Slaughter's call to do the right thing by those who are trying to put some hope into their lives. I agree with her that "It is time to act."

However, it is time to recognize that there are things we can do immediately and with a small footprint that help those who want to get rid of Gaddafi. These steps would be welcomed by the Arab League who want to see order return to the region and who also want to see Gaddafi moved out.

While Anne-Marie Slaughter wants to see American "fiddling" on helping out Libyans in their revolution, I hope she will take another look at her proposal which seems to me to be taking "fiddling" to an order of magnitude higher.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons