President Obama issued a statement late on Wednesday indicating that he’s ordered his staff to review possible unilateral US actions in response to the Libyan government’s bloody efforts to suppress the countrywide revolt. These responses should not include the imposition of a so-called “no-fly zone” in the skies of the North African country.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has already demanded the imposition of a no-fly zone, a call (so far) rejected by the British.
Calls from various quarters are emerging for the United States to take the lead in imposing a no-fly zone inside Libya. Supporters include Elliott Abrams, the hard-edged neoconservative who was Middle East director for George W. Bush’s National Security Council, and various liberals in Congress, including two of the most outspoken anti-war representatives, Jim McDermott (D.-Wash) and Jim McGovern (D.-Mass.). Sarah Palin has chimed in, too. But it’s a really, really bad idea.
It’s dangerous: Like the no-fly zone in Iraq from 1991–2003, the enforcement of such a policy would be run by the United States and its junior partner, the British. It means war: a no-fly zone is worthless unless the United States is prepared to back it up with overwhelming military force.
It’s not needed: it isn’t clear that Libyan pilots are willing to bomb their own citizens. And, the revolution playing out in Libya isn’t likely to go on for months, or even weeks. Either Muammar Qaddafi surrenders or falls, or (far less likely) he somehow recovers to take control.
Yesterday, in a telephone call organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, Elliott Abrams proposed a series of radical steps designed to counter Qaddafi. He blasted President Obama for not doing enough. Some of his suggestions were reasonable enough: an arms embargo against Libya, for instance. But he endorsed calls for a no-fly zone, saying, “I don’t see any reason for us not to begin that conversation.” He also suggested an oil embargo against Libya, which would only work if US warships were used to enforce it.
Sadly, Democrats in Congress are backing the no-fly zone idea, too. In a statement, McDermott, McGovern, Mike Honda (D.-Calif.), and Keith Ellison (D.-Minn.), all liberals, said: “We agree with Libya’s deputy UN ambassador’s call for an internationally enforced no-fly zone to be established over the country to prevent Gadhafi from using his air force against protesters.” And Representative Howard Berman, an AIPAC ally who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee and who is a leading force on Capitol Hill in support of an oil embargo against Iran, added: “The international community should consider all measures to end the carnage, including the possible establishment of a no-fly zone to protect Libyan citizens.”
While measures by the United States to sanction Libya, to condemn Qaddafi’s brutal actions in international forums and to cut off Libya’s arms supply—though, in practice, no one’s about to ship weapons to Libya now—are all good ideas, the United States needs to avoid anything that has warlike implications.