Don't "No-Fly" Libya
March 7, 2011
Today in Libya, civilians are being killed by a
besieged and isolated dictator. Libyan warplanes have
been used to attack civilians, although the vast
majority of the violence has come from ground attacks.
The Libyan opposition's provisional national council,
meeting in Benghazi, is debating whether they should
request military support from the international
community, maybe the UN or NATO, starting with a no-fly
zone. The Arab League announced that it was also
considering establishing a no-fly zone, perhaps with
the African Union.
It is unclear what casualties the airstrikes may have
caused. The anti-regime forces have some access to
anti-aircraft weapons, and Qaddafi has already lost
planes and pilots alike to the opposition -- but it is
far from clear where the military balance lies.
Powerful U.S. voices -- including neo-conservative
warmongers and liberal interventionists in and out of
the administration, as well as important anti-war
forces in and out of Congress -- are calling on the
Obama administration to establish a no-fly zone in
Libya to protect civilians.
A Libyan activist writes in The Guardian, "we welcome a
no-fly zone, but the blood of Libya's dead will be
wasted if the west curses our uprising with failed
intervention." He says that his hopes for a happy
ending are "marred by a fear shared by all Libyans;
that of a possible western military intervention to end
the crisis." He seems to believe that a U.S. or NATO
no-fly zone would mean something other than a Western
Ironically it was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who
warned that establishing a no-fly zone "begins with an
attack on Libya." It would be an act of war. And the
Middle East doesn't need another U.S. war.
What would a no-fly zone in Libya mean? A bit of
history may provide some perspective. Bombing Tripoli
The year was 1986. People had been killed, this time in
a terrorist attack in Europe. The Libyan government,
led by Muammar Qaddafi, was deemed responsible. The
U.S. announced air strikes directed at "key military
sites" in Tripoli and Benghazi. Exactly the kind of
targeted air strikes that would precede a no-fly zone.
But according to the BBC, the missiles hit a densely
populated Tripoli suburb, Bin Ashur. At least 100
people were killed, including Qaddafi's three-year-old
daughter. Qaddafi himself was fine.
Fast-forward half a decade. The 1991 Gulf War in Iraq
was over. A besieged and defeated Arab dictator was
posturing, threatening force, and the victorious U.S.
decided to intervene again, officially for humanitarian
reasons. The U.S. and Britain established unilateral
"no-fly zones" in northern and southern Iraq. (U.S. and
British officials consistently lied, claiming they were
enforcing "United Nations no-fly zones," but in fact no
UN resolution ever even mentioned one.) During the
twelve years of the no-fly zone, hundreds were killed
by U.S. and British bombs.
Iraqis remember. So do Libyans.
Assume the "attack on Libya" preceding a no-fly zone
succeeds in its very specific purpose: to eliminate the
anti-aircraft weapons that could threaten U.S. planes
enforcing the zone. But does that mean it also
eliminates all anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of
the opposition, the defectors from Qaddafi's air force?
What would the consequences be of that?
And then there are the "what if" factors. What if they
made a mistake? The 1986 U.S. airstrikes in Libya were
supposed to be aimed at military targets -- yet more
than 100 people, many of them civilians, were killed;
why do we assume it will be any different this time?
What if a U.S. warplane was shot down and pilots or
bombers were captured by Qaddafi's military? Wouldn't
U.S. Special Forces immediately be deployed to rescue
them? Then what?
And that's just the military part. That's just the
No-fly zones, like any other act of war, have
consequences. In Libya, though it is impossible to
precisely gauge public opinion, a significant majority
of people appears opposed to the regime and prepared to
mobilize and fight to bring it down. That is not
surprising. While the Libyan revolt is playing out in
vastly different ways, and with far greater bloodshed,
it is part and parcel of the democratic revolutionary
process rising across the Arab world and beyond. And
just as in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and
elsewhere, there is no evidence that the Libyan
population supports foreign military involvement.
To the contrary, although at least part of the
anti-Qaddafi leadership is indeed calling for some kind
of military intervention, there appears to be
widespread public opposition to such a call. Certainly
there is fear that such foreign involvement will give
credibility to Qaddafi's currently false claims that
foreigners are responsible for the uprising. But beyond
that, there is a powerful appeal in the recognition
that the democracy movements sweeping the Middle East
and North Africa are indigenous, authentic, independent
mobilizations against decades-long U.S.- and
Western-backed dictatorship and oppression.
There have been broadly popular calls for international
assistance to the anti-Qaddafi forces, including
support for a UN-imposed assets freeze and referral to
the International Criminal Court for top regime
officials. And despite the breathtaking hypocrisy of
the U.S., which embraces the ICC as a tool against
Washington's current opponents but rejects it for war
criminals among its Israeli and other allies and
refuses its jurisdiction for itself, the use of the
Court for this purpose is very appropriate.
But there is no popular call for military intervention.
Human rights lawyer and opposition spokesman
Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga was crystal clear: "We are against
any foreign intervention... This revolution will be
completed by our people." And Libyan General Ahmad
Gatroni, who defected to lead the opposition forces,
urged the U.S. to "take care of its own people, we can
look after ourselves."
Indeed, if the U.S. is so worried about the bombing
raids against civilians, perhaps the Obama
administration should take another look at Afghanistan,
where nine Afghan children, ages seven to fourteen,
were killed by U.S. attack helicopters in Kunar
province on March 1st. If the Congress is so eager to
follow the wishes of Libya's opposition, perhaps
General Gatroni's call for the U.S. to "take care of
its own people" could mean challenging another stark
reality: the people of Wisconsin, facing a $1.8 billion
budget deficit, will pay $1.7 billion in taxes this
year just for their share of an already-existing war,
the one in Afghanistan. Global Opposition
Internationally, there is widespread public and
governmental opposition in influential countries, such
as India, to establishing a no-fly zone. In the United
Nations, many governments are reluctant to order an act
of war that would significantly escalate the military
conflict underway in Libya. The Security Council
resolution that passed unanimously on February 27
condemned the violence and imposed a set of targeted
sanctions on the Qaddafi regime, but did not reference
Article 42 of the UN Charter, the prerequisite for
endorsing the use of force.
Instead, the Council relied on Article 41, which
authorizes only "measures not involving the use of
armed force." Passage, let alone unanimity, would have
been impossible otherwise. Russia's ambassador
specifically opposed what he called "counterproductive
interventions," and other key Council members,
including veto-wielding China as well as rising powers
India, South Africa, and Brazil, have all expressed
various levels of caution and outright opposition to
further militarizing the situation in Libya.
So far, the Obama administration and the Pentagon
appear to be vacillating on support for a no-fly zone.
An anonymous administration official told the New York
Times"there's a great temptation to stand up and say,
'We'll help you rid the country of a dictator'... But the
president has been clear that what's sweeping across
the Middle East is organic to the region, and as soon
as we become a military player, we're at risk of
falling into the old trap that Americans are
stage-managing events for their own benefit."
In fact that "old trap," seizing control of
international events for Washington's own benefit,
remains central to U.S. foreign policy. It's becoming
harder these days, as U.S. influence wanes. But key
U.S. political forces are upping the pressure on Obama
to send the troops -- at least the Air Force. Those
rooting for war include right-wing Republican
warmongers eager to attack Obama as war-averse (despite
all evidence to the contrary), as well, unfortunately,
as some of the strongest anti-war voices in Congress
(including Jim McDermott, Mike Honda, Keith Ellison,
and others), who presumably believe that the
humanitarian necessity of a no-fly zone still outweighs
It doesn't. Humanitarian crises simply do not shape
U.S. policy. If they did, we might have heard a bit
more last week when the Baghdad government -- armed,
financed, trained, and supported by the United States --
killed 29 Iraqi civilians demonstrating against
corruption. We might have seen humanitarian involvement
in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions of
civilians have been killed in Africa's longest and
perhaps most brutal war. And we might have seen, if not
direct U.S. intervention, at least an end to the U.S.
enabling of the Israeli assault on Gaza that killed
more than 900 civilians, 313 of them children.
Rather, "humanitarian" concerns become a tool of
powerful circles to build popular support for what
would otherwise bring massive public outrage -- "really,
while the costs of existing wars have already brought
the U.S. economy to its knees, you want to launch
another U.S. war in the Middle East??" Whose
It's not that there are no real humanitarian concerns;
Libyan civilians are paying a huge price in challenging
their dictator. But powerful U.S. interests are at
stake, and few of them have anything to do with
protecting Libyan civilians. Certainly oil is key; not
so much about access to Libyan oil (the international
oil market is pretty fungible), but about which oil
companies will gain privileged positions? Will it be BP
and Chevron who win the lucrative contracts to develop
Libya's enormous oil fields, or will Chinese and
Russian oil companies take their place? What pipelines
will a new government in Libya choose, and which
countries and corporations will benefit?
And it's not only about oil. The Libyan uprising is one
of many potentially revolutionary transformations
across the Arab world and in parts of Africa, where
long-standing U.S.-backed dictatorships are collapsing
-- what kind of credibility can the U.S. expect in
post-Qaddafi Libya? Washington may be betting that it
can win credibility with the opposition by jumping out
in front with an aggressive anti-Qaddafi "military
assistance" campaign, perhaps starting with a no-fly
zone. But in fact Washington risks antagonizing those
opposition supporters, apparently the vast majority,
determined to protect the independence of their
The future of Libya and much of the success of the
democratic revolutions now underway across the region,
stand in the balance. If the Obama administration, the
Pentagon, war profiteers and the rest of the U.S.
policymaking establishment continue to define U.S.
"national interests" as continuing U.S. domination of
oil-rich and strategically-located countries and
regions, Washington faces a likely future of isolation,
antagonism, rising terrorism and hatred.
The democratic revolutionary processes sweeping North
Africa and the Middle East have already transformed
that long-stalemated region. The peoples of the region
are looking for less, not greater militarization of
their countries. It is time for U.S. policy to
recognize that reality. Saying no to a no-fly zone in
Libya will be the best thing the Obama administration
can do to begin the process of crafting a new,
demilitarized 21st century policy for the U.S. in the
newly democratizing Middle East.
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