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Debate: No-fly zone over Libya

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Is a no fly zone over Libya a good idea?

Background and context

In April and March of 2011, after a series of successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and protests across the Middle East against dictatorships of various kinds, Libyan civilians took to the streets to call for the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. This was followed by a vicious crack-down by the Libyan regime, involving Libyan police, security forces, and imported militia from Sudan and Chad violently attacking peaceful protesters. This was met with immediate condemnation by the international community.
And, as the crisis escalated, with the Libyan regime delivering fresh new atrocities that included the use of attack helicopters and fighter jets, the international community began to call for action of some kind. The most prominent proposal has been to impose a "no fly zone" over the country. This would involve the use of foreign planes to attempt to disable the ability of Libyan jets and helicopters from flying, thereby eliminating a major threat the regime has posed to both civilians and to the Libyan rebels. But there are serious concerns with such a proposal. Some worry that it would require too large a commitment of planes and resources, and that it would entail intolerable risks of a plane being shot down, for example. Other concerns include the possibility of mission-creep, in which a no-fly zone evolves into a larger mission that could involve active bombing campaigns and/or troops on the ground. But, supporters say that it is simply the right thing to do, morally and strategically. Gaddafi is clearly out of control, and willing to kill his own people. If the West is not willing to act, even with the support of the Arab League of nations, then why is it even spending money on its militaries, some ask? These arguments and more are considered below.
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Feasibility: Is a no-fly zone feasible within reason?

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Pro

  • Imposing a no-fly zone on Libya is easily achievable. General McPeak said to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in March of 2011: "I can’t imagine an easier military problem. If we can’t impose a no-fly zone over a not even third-rate military power like Libya, then we ought to take a hell of a lot of our military budget and spend it on something usable. Just flying a few jets across the top of the friendlies would probably be enough to ground the Libyan Air Force, which is the objective."[1]
  • US has support from Muslim world for no fly zone. John Kerry. "A no fly zone for Libya." Washington Post. March 11th, 2011: "So our diplomatic efforts must extend beyond the United Nations. The support of NATO and the African Union are important. To avoid the perception of NATO or the United States attacking another Muslim country, we need the backing of the Arab world. On that front, there are promising signs. The six Arab countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have called for a U.N.-imposed no-fly zone. The Arab League may consider a similar proposal on Saturday. Muslim nations in particular should support preparations for intervention if the violence spirals out of control."


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Con

  • Hard to implement no fly zone over large territory like Libya. Edward Rees. "The Case Against a No-Fly Zone in Libya." The Atlantic. February 28th, 2010: "Libya is a large country and violence has been reported over a vast area, but the greater an area of enforcement, the more difficult an NFZ becomes and the less likely to be effective. The Bosnian NFZ was conducted over a small airspace just 51,000 square miles, and even the Iraq cases were larger at approximately 100,000 square miles. A proposed NFZ over Darfur was mooted in part because the region, at 550,000 square miles, is simply too big."
  • No-fly zone over Libya requires scarce aircraft carrier. Edward Rees. "The Case Against a No-Fly Zone in Libya." The Atlantic. February 28th, 2010: "Unlike in Iraq and Bosnia, there are no obvious air bases near Libya from which to impose an NFZ, so the aircraft would likely have to be based on aircraft carrier. But it's not clear that the U.S., or even NATO, has that kind of capacity to spare. Using European bases would require many more aircraft as the greater distance severely limits the amount of time each plane could actually spend over Libya."


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Impact: Would a no-fly zone have a significant impact on conflict?

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Pro

  • No-fly zone would significantly benefit Libyan rebels General McPeak said to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in March of 2011: "I think it would have a real impact. It might change their calculation of who might come out on top. Just the mere announcement of this might have an impact."[2]
  • No-fly zone undermines main Libyan regime advantage: airpower. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, an arms analysis group in London noted in March 2011: "The major advantage of the pro-regime forces at the moment is their ability to deploy air power."[3]
  • Air transport is dynamically important; no-fly zone effective. "The military balance." The Economist. March 3rd, 2011: "Tribal militiamen, ferried by air from the Sahara, were deployed on the streets of Tripoli on February 21st and bloodily put down resistance there. A few days later, air transport was crucial again to Colonel Qaddafi’s plan to recapture coastal towns close to Tripoli from rebel hands."
  • Helping rebels in Libya is of great strategic value. Paddy Ashdown. "It is time for Europe to back a no-fly zone in Libya." Financial Times. March 13th, 2011: "Libya is not our backyard. But what happens there and in the other countries of the Maghreb matters to us Europeans very much. If those who have overturned dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt (and hopefully Libya) in this “Arab spring” can create effective, broadly secular democratic republics on the model of Turkey, Europe’s crucial relationship with its southern (and oil-providing) neighbours will be fundamentally altered to the advantage of both. If they fail, then dictatorships will inevitably follow – and very likely extremist Islamist ones. The nature of our neighbourhood is being decided on the dusty streets of Libya’s towns and that matters to us very much indeed."
  • Libyan rebels want a no-fly zone. Rebel fighter Ali Suleiman said on March 7th, 2011: "We don't want a foreign military intervention, but we do want a no-fly zone." Suleiman said the rebels can take on "the rockets and the tanks, but not Gadhafi's air force."[4]


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Con

  • Libyan rebels can succeed without no-fly zone. Daniel Larison. "Why a no-fly zone for Libya is a bad idea." The Week. March 1st, 2011: "The excessive violence against protesters by Muammar Gaddafi's forces, including the use of air power against civilians, has triggered the rebellion of much of the country and the defection of many military officers to the side of the rebels. Libyan rebels now control the majority of the country, Gaddafi has limited control outside of the capital and his tribal stronghold of Sirt, and most of the military has not committed itself to Gaddafi's defense. Given time, the rebels seem poised to overthrow Gaddafi without outside help."
  • No fly zones have a history of limited effectiveness. Edward Rees. "The Case Against a No-Fly Zone in Libya." The Atlantic. February 28th, 2010: "NFZs are not a frequently used tool in the international community's array of potential response mechanisms to internal violence. This is because they only address a symptom of conflict rather than the cause, are complicated to implement, have historically had middling results, and can draw states further into conflict rather than resolving them. NFZs have been implemented in only a few cases in the last twenty years. During the Bosnian war, Operation Deny Flight (March 1993 to December 1995) and Operation Deliberate Force (August to September 1995) were imposed over the war zone. Designed to deny the Serbian air force the ability to deploy airpower, these NFZs did little to stop the worst abuses of that conflict, including the infamous Srebrenica massacre among other atrocities. Intra-state conflicts, as in Libya today, are ultimately conducted on the ground. The Serbs only came to the negotiating table once the land power balance shifted against them. Certainly NFZs contributed to this, but were not the determining factor. Armies cannot be defeated by air forces alone."
  • Iraq and Kosovo no-fly zones weren't really successes. Daniel Larison. "Why a no-fly zone for Libya is a bad idea." The Week. March 1st, 2011: "We should remember that the no-fly zones in Iraq devolved into a decade-long air war that paved the way for the later invasion of Iraq, and the Kosovo intervention brought an end to Serbian control of the province only to deliver it into the hands of a criminal gang in the Kosovo Liberation Army."
  • No-fly zone wouldn't prevent most atrocities Leslie Gelb. "Don't use US force in Libya!" The Daily Beast. March 8th, 2011: "...U.S. jets high up in the sky still wouldn't be able, in most cases, to spot Libyan helicopter attacks at much lower altitudes and destroy them. Since these helicopters are doing the most damage now, what would the interventionists advocate at that point?"
  • No-fly zone would taint Libyan revolution with Western influence. "A no-fly zone over Libya? The case for and against." The Guardian. March 15th, 2011: "A no-fly zone would taint not just the Libyan rebels, but the whole Arab pro-democracy movement, as western stooges, sapping the uprising of its home-grown vitality. The Arab League vote in favour represented the region's elites. The "Arab street" would be far more hostile to western intervention, especially if civilians were harmed. Al-Qaida could exploit the consequent turmoil to present itself as the defender of Arab sovereignty and pride."
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Risks: Are the risks involved tolerable?

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Pro

  • Shirking no-fly zone undermines integrity of US values. Senator John Kerry: "I don’t think it's particularly constructive for our long-term strategic interests, as well as for our values, to say Qaddafi has to go. and then allow a delusional, megalomaniacal, out-of-touch leader to use mercenaries to kill his people."[5]
  • Doing nothing is to be complicit with Gaddafi regime. ' Paddy Ashdown. "It is time for Europe to back a no-fly zone in Libya." Financial Times. March 13th, 2011: "The indiscriminate use of overwhelming force against his people by Muammer Gaddafi – in flagrant contravention of his international obligation to protect them – is now having an effect. To do nothing is to acquiesce to the crushing of a people, which will almost certainly be accompanied – if it has not been already – by horrors that amount to crimes against humanity."
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Con

  • No-fly zone that fails to dislodge Gaddafi will look bad. Ross Douthat. "The Perils of a No-Fly Zone." New York times. March 10th, 2011: "what will happen to American credibility if we effectively declare war on Libya [with a "no fly zone") and then fail to dislodge Qaddafi, because he’s well-entrenched and we aren’t willing to escalate beyond air cover? It seems all-too-plausible that rather than vindicating American power, a no-fly zone will ultimately just make the United States look like more of a paper tiger: We’ll demonstrate that we’re capable of going halfway to war, but no further, and Libya’s tyrant will be able to claim that he fought America and won."


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Morality: Is a no-fly zone morally justified?

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Pro

  • No fly zone in Libya prevents a massacre John Kerry. "A no fly zone for Libya." Washington Post. March 11th, 2011: "the stakes in Libya today are more appropriately underscored by the tragedy that took place in southeren Iraq in the waning days of the Persian Gulf War. As coalition forces were routing the Iraqi army in February 1991, President George H.W. Bush encouraged the Iraqi people to "take matters into their hands to force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside." When Iraqi Shiites, Kurds and Marsh Arabs rebelled against their brutal dictator, they believed American forces would protect them against Hussein's superior firepower. When Iraqi attack helicopters and elite troops began butchering their own people, coalition forces were ordered to stand down. The world watched as thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered."
  • No-fly zone does not constitute military intervention. A no-fly zone does not constitute military intervention, according to such sources as John Kerry, the chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Face the Nation in March of 2011. This is because it does not inherently involve engaging the enemy; it only involves engaging enemy aircraft if they try to take flight and inflict harm on civilians, etc. In this manner, a no-fly zone is more of a humanitarian mission.[6]
  • West has responsibility to countering oppression. Job C. Henning. "Counterpoint: Protecting the Libyan People." New York Times. March 9th, 2011.: "The West should take this chance to support human rights at the most fundamental level. We should stand against a state that seeks to use its sovereign status as a shield as it deprives its people of life. In doing so we would not be perpetuating the unilateral interventionism of our actions in Iraq in 2003. Instead, we would be making an important contribution to a rule-based international society by reinforcing the emerging international legal norm of the “Responsibility to Protect." This principle — that mass atrocities are the responsibility of all nations — was universally adopted at the United Nations World Summit in 2005. It continues the modern evolution of sovereignty from an absolute condition to a status contingent upon behavior: States will treat other states as sovereign if they uphold certain responsibilities."


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Con

Robert Dreyfuss. "Against a no-fly zone." The Nation. February 23rd, 2011: "It’s not needed: it isn’t clear that Libyan pilots are willing to bomb their own citizens."
  • No-fly zone could increase support for Gaddafi Sami Hermez. "Libya and the folly of intervention." Al Jazeera. March 7th, 2011: "Indeed, while many have called for a no-fly zone, this would effectively equal military intervention, since its enforcement would entail patrolling the Libyan skies, shooting down planes and otherwise disabling the Libyan air force, a scenario that would surely win Gaddafi many more supporters."
  • No evidence that rebels would govern any better than Gaddafi Leslie Gelb. "Don't use U.S. force in Libya!" The Daily Beast. March 8th, 2011: "The real question is this: If the rebels gained power, would they be any better than Col. Gaddafi? I haven't found many Americans, or anyone else, for that matter, who know much about them. Doubtless, some are noble freedom fighters who seek democracy for their nation. Still, I wouldn't bet on many of them falling into that category; they've had little opportunity to learn about democracy under the tutelage of Col. Gaddafi. Many of them could turn out to be thugs, thieves, and would-be new dictators. Surely, some will be Islamic extremists. One or more might turn into another Col. Gaddafi after gaining power. Indeed, when the good colonel led the Libyan coup in 1969, many right-thinking Westerners thought him to be a modernizing democrat. "I guess we were kind of euphoric about him at first," William D. Rogers, who was President Nixon's secretary of state at the time of Gaddafi's ascension to power, has said. Many caring and anti-colonial Westerners felt the same good vibes coming from the likes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria, and on and on."
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Mission creep: Would NFZ involve into greater engagement?

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Pro

  • No-fly zone does not require bombing Libyan air bases. Nicholas Kristof. "The case for a no-fly zone." The New York Times. March 9th, 2011: "The secretary of defense, Robert Gates, has said that a no-fly zone would be “a big operation in a big country” and would begin with an attack on Libyan air defense systems. But General McPeak said that the no-fly zone would be imposed over those parts of the country that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi doesn’t control. That may remove the need to take out air defense systems pre-emptively, he said. And, in any case, he noted that the United States operated a no-fly zone over Iraq for more than a decade without systematically eradicating all Iraqi air defense systems in that time."


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Con

  • Libyan no-fly zone would evolve into larger military engagement Edward Rees. "The Case Against a No-Fly Zone in Libya." The Atlantic. February 28th, 2010: "Any NFZ carries two serious risks: downing the wrong aircraft, such as an aid flight or transport; and getting drawn into the conflict on the ground. Even if Qaddafi doesn't provoke ground strikes by shooting at occupying planes, it's not hard to see how the NFZ could escalate into a bombing campaign. It could quickly devolve into a "no drive zone" operation, in which Libyan ground forces such as tanks, artillery, and convoys become targets. As the NFZ escalates, so does the risk of losing planes and pilots, as does the possibility of mistakenly bombing protesters, some of whom already occupy military bases and could try to use the hardware themselves."
  • No fly zone would create expectation of help elsewhere. George Will. "On Libya, too many questions." Washington Post. March 8th, 2011: "The Egyptian crowds watched and learned from the Tunisian crowds. But the Libyan government watched and learned from the fate of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. It has decided to fight. Would not U.S. intervention in Libya encourage other restive peoples to expect U.S. military assistance?"
  • No-fly zone requires a backup-plan in case it fails Ross Douthat. "Iraq Then, Libya Now." New York Times. March 13th, 2011: "Advocates of a Libyan intervention ... have rallied around a no-flight zone as their Plan A for toppling Qaddafi, but most military analysts seem to think that it will fail to do the job, and there’s no consensus on Plan B. Would we escalate to air strikes? Arm the rebels? Sit back and let Qaddafi claim to have outlasted us? If we did supply the rebels, who exactly would be receiving our money and munitions? Libya’s internal politics are opaque, to put it mildly. But here’s one disquieting data point, courtesy of the Center for a New American Security’s : Eastern Libya, the locus of the rebellion, sent more foreign fighters per capita to join the Iraqi insurgency than any other region in the Arab world."
  • Past No-fly zones have led to further military intervention Ross Douthat. "Iraq Then, Libya Now." New York Times. March 13th, 2011: "Twice in the last two decades, in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, the United States has helped impose a no-flight zone. In both cases, it was just a stepping-stone to further escalation: bombing campaigns, invasion, occupation and nation-building."
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