Libya needs a no-fly zone

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are remarkable because they required no support from outside countries. Libya, however, is different. While people died in the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, the leaders of both countries left their posts relatively peacefully. In contrast, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has promised to “die a martyr” instead of relinquishing power. So far the violence he has used against Libyans shows how serious he is.

Some western countries, especially France and the United Kingdom, have called for a no-fly zone to be imposed over Libya. This would accomplish two things. First, it would prevent Gadhafi from using his military to attack rebels. Second, Gadhafi would be unable to fly militants in from other countries to fight on his side — a tactic he may already be using.

In a Foreign Affairs article in 2005, John Mueller argues that “Iraq syndrome” makes America much less willing to use military action, especially unilaterally and if a clear threat to American interests is absent. America and its allies are unlikely to act unless action is uncontentious and unless the objective can be guaranteed. Regarding Libya, the Iraq syndrome points to two issues that must be addressed.

The first question is if a no-fly zone over Libya is justified. There are some good reasons for thinking that it isn’t, but these are overstated compared to the alternative. Clearly, once other countries intervene those countries — especially if they’re not members of the Arab League — risk jeopardizing the stability of the rebellion. In Libya this is particularly problematic. There is no clear leader among the Libyan protestors and, more surprisingly, no consensus on whether or not a no-fly zone is a good idea. For some of Gadhafi’s opposition, any outside help — especially from America — cheapens the movement.

But a no-fly zone may be the only chance the anti-Gadhafi forces have at success. If Gadhafi uses the attack helicopters at his disposal or increases the movement of loyal troops around by air, the opposition’s chances look continually more bleak. Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, told a European radio station that had foreign intervention already occurred, the comeback of Gadhafi’s forces might not have happened. “We may have let slip by a chance,” Juppe said.

The second question is if a no-fly zone would work if it were implemented. Past examples provide an unclear picture. A no-fly zone over Bosnia failed to prevent the mass killings in Srebrenica in 1995. In 1991, however, the no-fly zone was successful in stopping the slaughter of Kurds at the hands of Saddam Hussein (but it didn’t prevent the Iraqi air force from bombing the south). Libya’s air force is robust enough to threaten the loss of foreign airplanes. They have over 100 fighter jets, 30 attack helicopters and a massive supply of surface-to-air missiles.

Most worrying for countries considering intervention is “mission creep” — the risk of a no-fly zone turning into a long-term, full-scale military operation like in Iraq or Afghanistan. This is, of course, a serious worry. It is the reason Germany is unwilling to support a no-fly zone and is behind America’s lack of outright support.

Despite the risks, a no-fly zone is a good option. Gadhafi is waging civil war against Libyans and his opposition has little chance of success if a coalition doesn’t get involved. Although many countries, including Canada, think that the UN Security Council should decide, Russia and China will probably veto any resolution for a no-fly zone (they find silencing protestors occasionally useful). The best chance is for a “coalition of the willing” to act soon. America is almost certainly needed for it to succeed. If it will prevent the slaughter of thousands, all countries should get on board.

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