Home / Robert Farley / Briefly, on No Fly…

Briefly, on No Fly…


There’s a lot of interesting stuff out on the utility of a no fly zone over Libya; I’d recommend Spencer, David Axe, Adam Elkus, and Magnus to start. The operational details are actually pretty important, because the political impact of any effort to enforce a no fly zone depends on decisions to pre-emptively suppress the Libyan air defense network, to attack Libyan airbases, to exempt rebel aircraft, to destroy Libyan helicopters, and so forth.

I am generally reluctant to adopt the position that advocacy of any particular military action makes one “just like a neocon”; I think that there is, within the larger family of potential military interventions, a number of actions that don’t “rise to neoconservatism”, and the advocacy of which doesn’t necessarily make one a “hawk.” No fly zones are a pretty non-invasive way of invading a country, so to speak. However, we shouldn’t be under any illusions about the political decision to intervene militarily in the Libyan civil war. Any decision to intervene means, effectively, that we have decided on regime change in Libya. This is to say that we’ve decided the rebels should win, and we’re willing to undertake steps that will make it easier for them to do so. When understood in this context, enforcement of a no fly zone is different from forcibly seizing Tripoli only in the level of Western risk and material commitment. It’s not even clear that seizing Tripoli with the USMC and handing it over to the rebels would be less bloody than letting them bludgeon Gaddafi’s remaining forces into submission in a long ground campaign.

As such, advocates of a no fly zone have to answer two difficult questions. First, to what extent do we really want to be responsible for installing the next regime in Tripoli? This is what we’d be doing, because a no fly zone is a military intervention intended to help one party win. Second, what if Gaddafi wins in spite of the enforcement of a no fly zone? There was a point at which Saddam Hussein seemed utterly dead in 1991, with a no fly zone appearing to be the coup de grace. Committing the United States to regime change in the form of enforcing a no fly zone made 2003 radically more likely, if not inevitable.

Advocates of a no fly zone, even those I respect, haven’t answered these questions to my satisfaction.

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  • wsn

    I suspect this would also cause problems for future movements in the region. So far they have been able to avoid the taint of US influence.

    I don’t think I’ve seen an answer to that, either. Of course, this is far, far from anything I know anything about so there’s that too.

  • wengler

    I haven’t seen much to prove to me that the Libyan Air Force has been particularly effective against the rebels, with plenty of defections and seemingly intentional misapplied strikes. I suppose that all changes if gunship helicopters start getting involved, but at the moment there is no need for a no-fly zone.

    The past few days have shown that Gaddafi has no ability to project force into areas that he has lost. Once the rebel groups push on Tripoli, this is likely to end fairly quickly.

  • I’m not so sure that the no-fly zone in Iraq really made the 2003 invasion “radically more likely”, although I take your point, and agree with you about the present situation in Libya. Twelve years is a long time, and a Gore administration would not have been in such a rush prove that it had the stones Pappy lacked.

    • wengler

      I do remember the No-Fly Zone used as both a) proof that the Persian Gulf War had never ended and b)a tiresome, dangerous task that could only end through invasion of Iraq and the destruction of Saddam Hussein.

      This argument very much went along that lines that soldiers in Kuwait were bored and tired of sand storms so we need to invade Iraq. The pro-war faction was very much into throwing as much shit against the wall to see what stuck.

      • joe from Lowell

        Sure, but the argument was just that: a pretext. Absent a no-fly zone, they just would have used other pretexts.

        So, their invocation of the No Fly Zone can’t really be said to have caused the invasion.

    • Charrua

      My guess is that Robert is arguing that the no fly zone policy ineffectiveness at removing Saddam from power made 2003 more likely.

      • In that case, I would argue that Robert is mistaken. Bill Clinton managed to avoid invading Iraq for eight years while the NFZ was in place. A much better argument would be that the 1991 war itself made the 2003 war more likely.

  • hipster ariel sharon

    How much jet fuel has Gaddafi’s government managed to hold on to? Maybe we don’t even need a no-fly zone.

    • Aardvark Cheeselog

      They have oil wells and refineries. I think they make their own jet fuel.

  • I initially favored a Libyan no-fly zone, but on further reflection I realized that it was probably a bad idea.

    For every complex problem there is at least one solution that is simple, easy and completely wrong.

    • It seemed like a simple and obvious idea until I started thinking about AA defenses. And I doubt that he’s got his air force cleverly parked all in rows on any one piece of tarmac where it could easily be bombed.

      I’m in agreement that there’s more to it than meets the eye.

  • Kal

    It’s very hard for me to imagine that confirming Qaddafi’s claims that the protesters are part of a foreign conspiracy could possibly do anything good for the likelihood of peace in Libya over the long term. That’s not even getting into the question of how concerned any actual US/EU intervention would be with Libyan lives, versus ensuring the loyalty & strength of potential proxies, oil, etc…

    • NonyNony

      It’s very hard for me to imagine that confirming Qaddafi’s claims that the protesters are part of a foreign conspiracy could possibly do anything good …


      Let’s take Qaddafi’s delusional ramblings and provide some evidence that he’s right, shall we?

      Also the thing that I don’t think the general populace grasps when it comes to a “no-fly zone” is that it isn’t some kind of magical defense shield we can just turn on – it isn’t just about suiting up “Maverick” and “Goose” and sending them out to have a firefight against Baron von Richtofen and knock his plane out of the air in a dogfight. First you have to go in and bomb the hell out of the country – you have to knock out their anti-aircraft so that our planes are safe. And what is the likelihood that our intelligence on Lybia is 100% accurate and that we’ll only manage to hit military installations and not accidentally hit a civilian-staffed factory or a school? Or that Qaddafi has any qualms about sticking his air defense bits in a civilian area to get us to create a bunch of “collateral damage”?

      And if we do that, how long before the population starts to think “huh, maybe those rebels really are just the tools of the Americans who want to come in and slaughter us”. How does that help the rebels at all?

      Better for us to stay out of it. Freeze his damn assets. Hell, despite the fact that the man should be up in front of the Hague on charges I might even be okay with the US secretly offering to put him into the Witness Protection Program and smuggle him into some retirement home somewhere warm under an assumed identity. Even the blowback from THAT after the truth eventually leaked out would have to be better than the blowback that a bombing campaign by US planes in Lybia is likely to cause.

      (Now, if some other group – like the Arab League – decided to take the point on this and the US stayed out of it except to allow the vote without a veto in the UN, then that’s their problem and they can deal with the blowback. But the US is already bombing enough civilians in the world and creating enough enemies – let someone else do it if they really think it needs to be done.)

      • Robert Farley

        A no fly zone can actually be a bit less invasive that this. Some ROEs only involve engaging the parts of the air defense network that fire on or lock on friendly aircraft, and most ROEs don’t involve pre-emptively attacking airfields.

    • joe from Lowell

      It’s very hard for me to imagine that confirming Qaddafi’s claims that the protesters are part of a foreign conspiracy could possibly do anything good for the likelihood of peace in Libya over the long term.

      I was very much of this opinion as recently as last week, for Libya and all of the countries seeing these protests. However, events seem to have overtaken this issue. At this point – with the military already having split, with the protesters already having turned into rebels, with the situation already looking like a civil war, with events having gone so far by themselves, would an intervention on behalf of the rebels really make the rebellion look like something we cooked up? I think they’ve established their local credibility.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    Yeah, but then what? If the US/EU/NATO doesn’t enforce a no fly zone, and the civil war either continues on bleeding the country dry, or the pro-Qaddafi side starts to pull ahead, then what? I guess I remember a certain time with fondness, the 1990s, when the West, specifically the US, was criticized for not acting or acting too late in the case of Rwanda and the Balkans.

    I guess I’m just cynical and looking forward to a time in the future when the US is criticized for not intervening quickly enough to stop bloodshed. I hope that’s not the case though.

    • There’s a big difference in the examples you cite. Those were divided along ethnic/religious lines, whereas as far as I know that’s not the case here.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        Perhaps, but what is the problem then? I guess I’m not seeing how this would be worse, only easier-generally taking religious and ethnic sides would be worse from a PR perspective.

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  • Not to be doctrinaire or anything, but have we interviened anywhere in the last generation or so where things have turned out for the better?

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      Bosnia? The fact that there are still Muslim Bosnians living in Bosnia and that the Serbs didn’t rape/kill/expel them all?

      • I’m not so sure that I’d agree with that, but even giving you that we’ve got, what one?

        • ajay

          Depending on your definition of “we”, Sierra Leone. Kosovo as well.

        • joe from Lowell

          East Timor.

          I’d go so far as to say that it was a good think that Kuwait didn’t go the way of the Sudetenland.

        • joe from Lowell

          Kurdistan, 1992-2003.

  • There’s also this.

  • paulo

    The Arab League has lots of planes, they hate Ghaddafi and Libya is their back yard.

  • joe from Lowell

    First, to what extent do we really want to be responsible for installing the next regime in Tripoli?

    I think you’re stealing a base here, using the word “responsible for” to make it seem as if any intervention we take leaves us “responsible for” the successor government, the way we’re “responsible for” the government in Baghdad, or were “responsible for” the Shah. The situation in Libya is different, in that the vast majority of the work will have been done by the locals, with us playing only a minor supporting role, comparable to the French bottling up Cornwallis.

    Second, what if Gaddafi wins in spite of the enforcement of a no fly zone?

    Third, what if the rebels win? Do we want the government of Libya to look at us as having failed to lift a finger to help them overthrow their tyrant?

    Fourth, what if the rebels win? Will the successor government be more or less likely to be democratic and adhere to international norms if the UN and NATO were standing with them in their hour of need, or if we did nothing?

  • “When understood in this context, enforcement of a no fly zone is different from forcibly seizing Tripoli only in the level of Western risk and material commitment.”

    This is obviously false, right? The US occupying Tripoli means the US has decided to occupy another state. The US enforcing a no-fly zone means that the US is hoping to help local forces in their fight against the powers that be (albeit via interventionist actions). But still, how in the world are those equivalent (which would have to be the case if the only difference was the level of western risk and material involvement)?

  • Dave Porter

    The no-fly zone imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq did not include helicopters. Colin Powell figured Hussein only had a few ambulance choppers and gave the okay when the Iraqis asked if helicopters would still be okay after the cease-fire.

    This resulted in US troops having to stand aside while watching Hussein’s helicopter gunships crush
    Iraqi revolt – after we had expressly encouraged the citizens to revolt against Hussein, particularly those around Basra. Then Hussein drained the swamps, denying them cover, and we still stood silent.

    We’ve been screwing Iraq over for more than twenty years now. There are an awful lot of people who do not see their lives being advanced by the continuation of the American Empire.

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