No Fly Won't Fly in Libya

As an unregenerate liberal interventionist, I believe America should aid Libyan rebels fighting to rid their country of Muammar Gaddafi. But for all the attention a no fly zone has received, there are better ways to even the odds in this so far unequal contest.

The impulse to "do something" as Gaddafi's planes and foreign mercenaries attack rebel-held towns is understandable. But at this point, imposing a no fly zone would entail high political costs while yielding uncertain military returns.

A key question, of course, is who would impose it? Given the likely opposition of Russia and China, the U.S. Security Council won't authorize a no fly zone. Europe, as usual, is brimming with moral outrage but can't muster the consensus to hand the job to NATO.

U.S. military authorities are scarcely enthusiastic. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Congress this week that imposing a no fly zone is a lot harder than it sounds. For one thing, it's basically an act of war that requires that U.S. forces first attack and destroy Libya's extensive air defense systems. For another, it would mean shifting aircraft and surveillance assets from the war in Afghanistan to the Mediterranean.

What really spooks U.S. officials is the spectacle of America, already engaged in two Middle East conflicts, launching yet another military attack on an Arab country. That could instantly change the Libyan narrative, shifting the world's focus from ordinary Libyans' valiant struggle for freedom to U.S. actions and motives. It could rekindle suspicions in the region that the United States is bent on imposing democracy on Muslim nations, undoing the Obama administration's painstaking efforts to refurbish America's image in the Middle East. In the worst case scenario, it could draw in jihadists and regional provocateurs hoping to lure the United States in a grinding and prolonged civil conflict.

Above all, Washington should avoid any step that might break the momentum of the popular upheavals now erupting across the Arab world. These bottom-up revolts hold out the best hope for democratic change that the people of the Middle East can believe in.

The best outcome for all concerned, of course, would be for the Libyan rebels to topple Gaddafi by themselves, with little or no outside help. That may not be in the cards.

The rebels, a mixture of lightly armed but highly motivated civilians and military defectors, so far seem to have stood up well to Gaddafi's professional security forces and mercenaries. Take that assessment with a grain of salt, however, as this piece in the Guardian argues that much of the international narrative may be skewed by rebel sources. While the regime has lost control of eastern Libya, few observers believe that rebel forces can crack Gaddafi's redoubt in Tripoli and the west, where he also enjoys support from his tribe.

A military stalemate thus may be the likeliest scenario. Since the real fighting is on the ground, a no fly zone might not have much impact. Says Jeffrey White, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies:

Most of the attention so far has been on establishing no-fly zones, but these may be inadequate to deal with Gaddafi's remaining forces. The regime's key instruments are ground units, so no-drive zones or airstrikes would likely be needed to truly curtail its ability to move against the opposition.

So what should the United States and other leading powers do now? One answer is to intensify international and regional diplomacy aimed at isolating Gaddafi and his henchmen. Another is to get food and medical supplies to Libyan rebels and refugees. It's also imperative to get a more accurate assessment of what's really going on in Libya.

If the tide of battle shifts decisively in Gaddafi's favor, the United States should be willing to provide the rebels with arms and intelligence. It is true that they are a disparate lot, that we know little about their aims once Gaddafi is gone (they may not know either), and that their ranks probably include Islamist groups.

Nonetheless, the rebels are determined to overthrow Gaddafi, which puts them clearly on the side of greater freedom and positive political change in Libya. And for now, that should be enough to merit America's support.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.