by Eric Martin
There has been an increasing chorus of voices urging the US (acting with its allies in NATO, the UN or in tandem with some ad hoc coalition of the willing) to impose a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace, with lawmakers from both parties, as well as foreign leaders, making appeals to implement some variation of such a policy in recent days.
To some extent, this impulse is understandable given the increasingly violent clashes in Libya, with government forces making gains on rebel positions and showing a willingness to use indiscriminate force in populated areas.
On the other hand, when pondering the involvement of US forces, first and foremost, elected leaders must consider whether such an intervention is in our national interest, and, if so, what can realistically be accomplished and at what costs. Along those lines, it is essential to establish what the objective of the intervention would be and what future actions will be necessitated/spurred on by the initial decision to intervene militarily. To paraphrase General Petraeus, "Tell me how this ends."
Despite legitimate concerns for civilian casualties, and the potential for atrocities, thus far Qaddafi has been primarily using air power to combat rebel forces within his nation's borders. The effect of a no-fly zone, then, would be to prevent Qaddafi from being able to use air power in that fight (as well as to safeguard civilians from airborne assaults).
Thus, even if justified on humanitarian grounds, the no-fly zone would serve the purpose of tilting the battlefield in favor of rebel forces - though some argue that supporting the rebels should be an explicit goal in itself, with the no-fly zone buttressed (or replaced) by arms and other aid provided directly to rebel forces. Regardless, these outcomes raise several important questions about who we are supporting, to what ends, and to what extent we will be expected to participate in the process.
1. Do we know what the majority of Libyan rebels want and how they envision the future state of Libya in the post-Qaddafi era? While there is a tendency to view these uprisings, and their participants, through Western-tinted lenses, those Libyans that are involved in the uprising are not monolithic in their outlook, nor are they uniformly pursuing a revolutionary democratic agenda.
For example, the epicenter of the rebellion, the city of Benghazi, is home to tribal groups and other factions with a long history of hostility to, and at times insurrection against, Qaddafi. In addition, there are hardcore Islamist factions involved in the opposition movement whose presence cannot be ignored. Further, as Andrew Exum points out, the region contributed a disproportionately large number of foreign fighters in Iraq:
Benghazi had sent more foreign fighters to Iraq than any other city in the Arabic-speaking world. On a per capita basis, though, twice as many foreign fighters came to Iraq from Libya -- and specifically eastern Libya -- than from any other country in the Arabic-speaking world...And 84.1% of the 88 Libyan fighters in the Sinjar documents who listed their hometowns came from either Benghazi or Darnah in Libya's east. This might explain why those rebels from Libya's eastern provinces are not too excited about U.S. military intervention. It might also give some pause to those in the United States so eager to arm Libya's rebels.
It is reasonable to conclude that at least some of the groups involved in the anti-government fight have limited democratic bona fides and are, instead, motivated by a desire to settle long standing grievances and/or to engage in an ancillary struggle for power with competing factions. Since we could be getting in bed with these groups in the near future, shouldn't the various motives/worldviews be examined at greater length?
2. What do US forces do if the imposition of a no-fly zone is not enough to enable rebel forces to topple Qaddafi? It is unlikely that limiting Qaddafi's use of fixed wing aircraft in the fight against rebels would be decisive on the battlefield, especially if he can retain the use of helicopters (targeting helicopters is a trickier endeavor, and thus their use might continue depending on the rules of engagement applicable to the eventual no-fly zone regime adopted, as well as other logistical factors). Further, as in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, there is no guarantee that a no-fly zone would prevent Qaddafi's ground forces from committing civilian atrocities.
However, if you think the calls for US intervention are loud now, just imagine all the appeals to moral responsibility and the loss of US credibility/prestige if our jets are patrolling Libyan skies while civilians are being massacred by ground forces, or the rebels are being beaten back.
So what should our forces do if Qaddafi quashes the rebellion despite the no-fly zone? Do we slink away quietly? Or, as is perhaps more likely, do we escalate our military intervention with either more aggressive rules of engagement, or the introduction of ground forces, to rescue the routed rebels? Shouldn't we consider whether we want to take on such a commitment before we head down a path of supposed limited intervention that could tilt steeply toward a much deeper involvement?
3. What do US forces do if the imposition of a no-fly zone is enough to enable rebel forces to topple Qaddafi? In the "be careful what you wish for" category, we need to consider what role, if any, US military and non-military personnel would be expected to play in post-Qaddafi Libya should the no-fly zone and/or other measures succeed in taking Qaddafi down.
Libya is a country with weak institutions, and an anemic civil society, to say the least. Given that fact, do we expect a peaceful, stable democratic state to emerge soon after Qaddafi falls? What if, as alluded to in #1 above, some of the rebel factions have a different vision - preferring to replace Qaddafi with a strongman more to their liking rather than opening up Libya to the uncertainty of the democratic process? What if civil strife erupts after Qaddafi's exit?
Is the US willing or able to pick winners and losers from amongst Libya's domestic political arena and back those parties militarily if need be? Would such an imposition generate armed resistance and, dare I say it, another insurgency? Even under a best case scenario, would the US want to get involved in yet another open-ended nation building exercise? If not, would we have the nerve to just walk away and hope for the best after committing to the fight initially?
4. How are we going to pay for the no-fly zone/aftermath? With municipal, state and federal budgets going through painful, GDP-shrinking contractions, where is the money to implement a no-fly zone supposed to come from? According to a recent study, a robust no-fly zone could cost between $100-$300 million a week to operate. Given the unknown duration of the no-fly zone, the price tag could easily reach several billion dollars eventually - not to mention the price tag for any post-Qaddafi nation building/assistance or, possibly, more invasive military involvement.
Would supporters of the no-fly zone on either side of the aisle support a tax increase to pay for it? If not, how do we justify adding the costs to the deficit/debt at a time when we are, supposedly, making exceedingly painful choices in pursuit of the reduction/stabilization of the deficit/debt? Are the national interests involved in actively supporting the Libyan uprising so vital that they take precedence over other interests at home and abroad that are currently being neglected/underfunded?
Those are questions we must ask and answer before taking the next step.
(cross posted at Democracy Arsenal)