What are pros and cons of a no-fly zone over Libya?
As some Congressional leaders urges military intervention in Libya, the Pentagon emphasizes the difficulty of implementing a no-fly zone or other proposed military solutions.
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There are some important questions that the Obama administration – and by extension, the Defense Department – have yet to determine. “A no-fly zone over what part of the country? Only the region [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi has control over? For what period of time?” Deptula asks.Skip to next paragraph
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What’s more, “It would be wise to think about what we want the desired outcome to be,” he adds. “What are the US strategic interests?”
Actually, the US has a number of of strategic interests, says Michael Singh, who was former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council until 2008. “Certainly energy. Libya is not only a critical supplier, but the current instability has an impact on energy prices throughout the world, and that in turn has an impact on the economic security” of the United States.
The US also has an interest in preventing humanitarian disaster, Mr. Singh says, though critics question why America would intervene in Libya while ignoring mass killings in other African nations.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned about concerns that the US would “invade for oil.”
Gates cautioned against what might be said if the US takes action in “another country in the Middle East.”
Yet just because the US has "ignored” humanitarian crises in other parts of Africa does not mean it should do it now, says Singh. What’s more, the institutional conservatism of the Pentagon should not override US interests, he argues. “Not acting has consequences. You can’t get away from the consequences by not acting.”
For example, Libyan opposition has requested US airstrikes against Colonel Qaddafi and could resent ongoing US non-intervention. The problem, says the Washington Institute’s Knights, is that if a no-fly zone helps Libyan rebels launch an assault on, say, Tripoli, the mission “is not humanitarian any more. The United States effectively becomes a combatant – we are effectively picking a side.”
And US officials still know little about the Libyan rebels. Eastern Libya “has been a strong radical Islamist base since the 70’s. It’s the place that provided one of the largest number of foreign fighters to Al Qaeda in Iraq,” Knights says. Many of the mid-ranking Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan are also Libyans, he adds.
Helping the opposition rebels could “earn ourselves significant brownie points” with some conservative Muslims, Knights says. “The lesson might be, we can support these kinds of Islamist movements, but the key is to remain in touch with them and guide their development. The problem,” he adds, “is the gross uncertainty – we just don’t know. That’s part of the reason why Gates is urging caution.”
Indeed, the uncertainty comes with possible rewards. “There are risks with a no-fly zone, and the chance that it could bring the conflict to an earlier close,” says Singh.
“This is why military decisions are hard," he adds. "If they came with a guarantee of military victory, there would be no question about what to do.”