The Corner

Against a No-Fly Zone

I’ve been traveling lately, with no time for Corner posting. Before we see what’s about to unfold in Libya, however, I’d like to give my take on our policy choices there.

I am not an advocate of establishing a no-fly zone in Libya. When it comes to the freedom agenda in the Middle East, I am a skeptic. Democracy promotion may (or may not) work as a long-term enterprise in places where U.S. troops are in place. I don’t think it should drive our Middle East policy in the short or medium term, however. The Libyan opposition is a complex mix of Islamists, actors motivated by tribal allegiances, and liberals. The last element is probably the weakest of the three, and even their purported liberalism may not guarantee a pro-Western stance. While we might be lucky enough to quickly and cleanly displace Qaddafi, I don’t think the relatively thin prospects of the Libyan opposition developing into liberal democrats justifies the risks of an extended military entanglement.

I take arguments for a no-fly zone based on more traditional considerations of national interest more seriously. America does have an important interest in securing the supply of oil from the Middle East. Libyan oil is not critical to our supply, however, and this operation does not appear to be an attempt to send a signal about the need to stabilize oil flow.

We also have an interest in making sure that Middle Eastern governments do not support terrorism, especially if those governments also have active nuclear programs. There is some danger that Qaddafi will restart his nuclear program and resume his sponsorship of terrorism if he survives this struggle. Nonetheless, it is very far from certain that Qaddafi will move in this direction, and preventing him from doing so does not seem to be the motive for our actions in Libya.

I would rather see us convey a clear message that a resumption of terror sponsorship and/or a nuclear program would not be tolerated, than to have us risk a complex intervention on that assumption now. Targeted military attacks of the sort President Reagan used on Libya could be used in case Qaddafi resumed his nuclear program or terror support, and we could clearly convey that message to him beforehand.

Granted, helping an indigenous opposition overturn Qaddafi might be a quick and cheap way of preventing his return to full-scale rogue status in the future. Yet it could just as well begin a messy and extended military adventure, or usher in an anti-Western, pro-terrorist, Islamist government.

So I oppose the establishment of a no-fly/no-drive zone, which is tantamount to a commitment to overthrow Qaddafi with grounds troops, if necessary. Should air attacks fail to work, we either go in and finish the job with troops, or make ourselves look weak by initiating a military action we cannot or will not carry through to a favorable conclusion. I don’t think the risks are worth it.

There is a cost to the sort of stance I’m supporting. It means leaving opponents of a contemptible dictator in the lurch. Yet we cannot and do not intervene to overthrow every dictatorship in the world. More to the point, I think the West is badly misjudging the motives of many of the protests sweeping the Arab world right now. I do not think we are witnessing a liberal democratic revolution, and I don’t think active attempts by the West to turn the unrest in that direction will succeed any time soon.

I recognize that, given America’s considerable military power, we may be lucky enough to quickly displace Qaddafi. A relatively painless successful military outcome is a real possibility here. But the risks of something that falls short of that are also real. And especially to the extent that we expect this operation to advance the cause of authentic liberal democracy in the Middle East, I am deeply skeptical of this venture.


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