A no-fly zone over Libya won't work!
Associate since 1991
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March 15, 2011
To intervene or not to intervene in Libya, that is the question. Indeed, the next two lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy are also apposite: “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against the sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?”
The way the civil war is raging it is becoming clear that, as James Clapper, director of US National Intelligence, said last week, “Over the longer term the regime will prevail.” Only outside intervention can save the rebel cause. But, as the US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, has pointed out, anyone who advocates a third large scale army military intervention in Asia “needs his head examined”. Iraq and Afghanistan are a full enough plate. Moreover, both show up as living examples the dangers of intervention even thought at the onset it all looked so right- to end the protecting of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and the toppling of a threatening tyrant in Iraq.
Let’s concentrate on consolidating what’s been won in Egypt and Tunisia rather than being sucked into a Libyan maelstrom which has a different violent character altogether. But, say the interventionists, we have rung our hands for not intervening in Rwanda and halting the pogroms. We have preferred negotiation in Sudan than intervention, even though it took decades to fashion a peace agreement by the diplomatic route whilst hundreds of thousands were killed or tortured. In Somalia when intervention (under a UN mandate) started to claim US soldiers’ lives (not very many) President Bill Clinton ordered the US contingent out, leaving Somalia to anarchy which continues to this day with one consequence being the pirates of the Indian ocean and another making one more home for Al Qaeda.
The airwaves seem to be bristling with a compromise - no intervention with boots on the ground but a “no fly zone”, so that Colonel Muammar Gadhaffi’s air force can’t operate. A meeting of the Arab League has now called for such a “no-fly zone”. President Barack Obama has backed the call up, although at the UN the US position seems more ambiguous. Britain and France have drafted a UN resolution to authorize its creation. Although Russia and China have been prevaricating the decision of the Arab League will have an influence on their traditional attitude to not approving outside intervention.
A “no fly zone” sounds nice and straightforward. In practice it is not. It cannot compare with the one imposed on Iraq at the end of the first gulf war. Then Britain and the US, the enforcers, faced no hostile air force. Iraq’s planes had either fled to Iran or had been destroyed. The number of high class anti-aircraft batteries were few and far between.
Libya has a large armoury of both planes and anti-aircraft guns that have trained over decades for the eventuality of an outside attack. The Libyan military may not be the most sophisticated outfit in the world but it can cause a lot of trouble.
Imagine the situation if the Security Council authorises the implementation of a “no-fly zone”. It would involve the planes of the US, Nato (including its one Moslem member, Turkey) and perhaps Egypt, all countries in which public opinion plays an important role. It would be “rah rah rah” at the beginning. But once planes were shot out of the sky there would be popular pressure to go in and sort out the Libyans on the ground. The dangers foreseen by Robert Gates would come to pass. Popular opinion in the Arab states would be torn - between those who want to overthrow Gadhaffi and those whose anti-Americanism and anti-Western feelings still run deep.
Even in Tunisia and Egypt, the two countries where the pro democracy rebellions have had most success, the voters in the countryside and among the poorer less educated urban proletariat are still very much attached to the old deposed regimes and the attitudes that went with it. “The Arab Street” still exists even if it’s split.
The “no fly zone” is a risky proposition. The Libyan civil war is perhaps going to run and run. Outsiders can’t just hover at 40,000 feet for years on end. Where, this time, is the exit strategy?
The non-violent sanctions so far approved by the Security Council are pretty hefty. Libya’s overseas bank accounts have been frozen. Arms shipments are effectively frozen with U.S. naval ships close off the Libyan coast able to monitor all comings and goings. There is talk of boycotting Libya’s oil exports.
Give them time to work, but try to make sure that they don’t cause the poorer peoples of Libya to suffer. Keep up the relief operations. Work to divide the leadership around Gadhaffi.
It will take time. But it is less flamboyant, less politically charged, less likely to trigger a backlash and, in the foreseeable future, promises success.
© Jonathan Power 2011
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan
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