As the democratic awakening sweeps across the Arab world, the Obama administration is struggling to find the right balance between short-term crisis management and the longer-term need for a new approach that breaks with Washington’s dark history of military intervention and support for autocratic regimes. After some initial missteps, the administration was able to strike, more or less, the right balance in the case of Egypt, using its ties with the Egyptian military to help nudge Hosni Mubarak from power without distracting from the historic display of people power in Tahrir Square.
The latest challenge comes from the deteriorating situation in Libya, where, as we go to press, forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi close in on rebel-held Benghazi. Our natural tendency is to want to help end Qaddafi’s despotic rule and to save the lives of those bravely resisting his onslaught. But it is a difficult challenge to take action that has a reasonable chance of success but that does not arouse popular—and well-founded—suspicions of neoimperial intervention. The catastrophic invasion of Iraq hangs heavy in the Arab world, and Washington’s role in the Middle East is still deeply compromised, with US military aid to repressive regimes like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia now being used to crush peaceful protest and demands for democracy.
As the violence intensified in March, the White House faced a chorus of voices from respected liberals like Senator John Kerry, as well as from perennial hawks like Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, calling for a no-fly zone. The administration was right to resist those calls in favor of a series of UN Security Council–mandated measures—freezing the regime’s assets, imposing sanctions on Qaddafi and his associates and organizing humanitarian assistance—that fall short of military action. The administration has also opened up contacts with the opposition but has not recognized it or provided arms.
The White House has reluctantly agreed to a no-fly zone but only if it is authorized by the Security Council and has regional support. Even if countries in the region are willing to join in the effort (both the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League have called for a no-fly zone) and Russia and China are willing to go along with it, the administration should proceed cautiously. We understand the impulse to save lives and to see Qaddafi removed from power, but (assuming that it’s not already too late) it is not clear that a no-fly zone would serve those purposes—certainly not at a reasonable cost—for three reasons.
First, it is not clear that the Pentagon would be able to avoid civilian casualties. No-fly zones have, at best, a mixed record as a form of humanitarian intervention. Libya may not present the same military challenge as Iraq or Serbia, but the United States still might have to undertake bombings and cruise missile attacks to suppress Libyan air defenses; no doubt many of these would be located in civilian areas. Some civilian casualties would therefore be inevitable. Even with Arab League and other regional support, the prospect of civilian casualties from US military action risks turning this into a story of American intervention. Up to now, the democratic awakening has opened up the Arab world’s future because it has been undertaken by the Arab people, who now believe they have control over their own destiny. We should avoid actions that change that narrative.
Second, even if a no-fly zone could be implemented with minimum civilian casualties, we don’t know if it could save lives or tilt the playing field toward the rebels. Air power indeed gives Qaddafi some advantages, but a no-fly zone would do little to stop his forces from attacking and murdering the opposition using other means. And beyond grounding Qaddafi’s air force, it would not erode his substantial military advantages; indeed, as the conflict has progressed, his tanks, artillery, sea power and better-armed infantry have put rebel forces on the defensive.
Finally, there is a danger that a no-fly zone would distract from other measures that are likely to be just as effective. Financially strangling the regime by cutting off all sources of money from abroad, sharing real-time intelligence with the rebels, working with others to facilitate the flow of assistance to them while stopping the flow of pro-Qaddafi mercenaries into the country—if done in cooperation with the Arab League, all have as much or more promise with less risk than does the far more dramatic gesture of a no-fly zone.
Indeed, there is a worrying dimension to the current obsession with a no-fly zone, in that it reflects a mindset that associates US foreign policy with heroic crusades to bring down the bad guys. But it is exactly that mindset that has done so much damage in the Middle East over the years and that has saddled us with the costly burdens of two ongoing wars in Muslim lands.
The democratic awakening in the Arab world presents the United States with an opportunity to put that past behind us. It offers us a chance to align our interests with democratic change and economic progress. It would be a tragedy if we allowed the obsession with a no-fly zone in Libya to distract us from these difficult and important challenges. We need to deal with longstanding allies like Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which continue to resist democratic reforms—and to help the Egyptian people consolidate democracy and create jobs and economic opportunity. The most productive role for America in the Middle East today is diplomatic and economic, not military.