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Micah Zenko


A no-fly zone over Libya will not be easy or painless.

FILES/AFP/Getty Images
FILES/AFP/Getty Images

In recent days, policymakers around the world have condemned Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s human rights violations, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution imposing a travel ban and asset freeze on his family, and Barack Obama’s administration froze any assets held by Libyan officials in the United States.

But nothing has made a difference. Libya stands on the brink of a protracted civil war. And the latest popular solution, a U.S.-led no-fly zone (NFZ), will not make a difference either. In the debate over possible U.S. military operations in Libya, two objectives have been proposed: protecting civilians and precipitating regime change. An NFZ would accomplish neither.

In addressing the goal of protection, it is worth noting that there is little evidence Libya has used air power against civilians. On Wednesday, March 2, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, acknowledged: "We’ve not been able to confirm that any of the Libyan aircraft have fired on their own people." Most air attacks appear to be directed against armed rebels. Bombs have reportedly been dropped against rebel positions in Brega and Ajdabiya. In addition, Human Rights Watch reported a fighter jet firing one missile near a mixed crowd of rebels and civilians in Brega.

Given that the real problem for civilians is persistent oppression from ground forces, an NFZ would have little or no impact in protecting the vulnerable. In fact, were a U.S.-led NFZ to be announced, Qaddafi would further direct his attention and resources toward unleashing his ground forces. Pilots enforcing the NFZ would thus be in the position of remaining detached and watching the killings from above.

And what of regime change? To successfully depose the Libyan regime, the United States would have to abandon any pretense of impartiality and endorse the end of Qaddafi’s nearly 42-year reign. Obama stated on March 3 that "Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave." The president has yet to support an international campaign for Qaddafi’s removal, however.

More saliently, a military operation would not serve U.S. interests. Even a multinational intervention would play into Qaddafi’s hand by supporting his narrative of Libya under siege by foreigners with ulterior motives. Most importantly, the United States cannot and should not take responsibility for dismantling and subsequently reconstructing a dysfunctional petrostate with no legacy of democratic governance.

Of course, we’ve been here before. The United States led an NFZ over northern and southern Iraq for much of the 1990s and until the 2003 invasion. Soon after they were imposed, in 1992, a U.S. official mused hopefully, "How long do you think [Saddam Hussein] could last within just four parallels?" The answer was 11 years, and his removal was only accomplished through a massive invasion of 150,000 ground troops.

Saddam Hussein had many enemies that were protected by the NFZs — when it came to aircraft attack. On Iraqi soil, however, the NFZ was useless against Saddam’s ground forces. For years after the failed Shiite uprising in 1991, Saddam initiated a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the south, building roadways into the marshlands to bring artillery within range of Shia insurgents, conducting cordon operations in suspected rebel areas, and draining marshes to eliminate places to hide.

In the north, during a short-lived Kurdish uprising in 1996, Saddam marshaled two Republican Guard and three regular army divisions to form a battle group of 40,000 troops, 300 tanks, and 300 artillery pieces. As U.S. and British warplanes — charged with enforcing the NFZ — circled overhead, the Iraqi ground forces crushed the uprising in under a week. 

This last anecdote speaks to the impossibility of a limited intervention when a despotic leader will do anything to hold onto power. If the United States initiated an NFZ, how would pilots react to massacres unfolding before their eyes? No matter how noble the intention of protecting Libyans, the United States must be realistic about the American appetite for intervention and what it would realistically entail. Indeed, only 12 percent of Americans support a military intervention, while 38 percent support an NFZ.

Policymakers have mistaken a tactic for a strategy in this debate. Before an NFZ or any other military options are considered, the Obama administration must articulate what the U.S. strategy toward Libya is. Then, we can debate the costs and consequences of what it will take to achieve it.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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