As Moammar Gadhafi’s forces fail to retake key cities surrounding Tripoli and more and more countries explicitly denounce him and his government, there seems to be growing pressure on the Obama administration to do something. Senior American officials–including the President and the Secretary of State–have ratcheted up the rhetoric against the Libyan leader in recent days, but the potential for massive and widespread violence has directed pressure on Obama to act, not just talk. However, a situation this delicate requires a deliberate, planned response. Reacting to the situation without considering the consequences can quickly become very dangerous.
Many commentators have insisted that the United States should impose a no-fly zone at the very least, and potentially something more than that. They point to the results of similar actions in Bosnia and Iraq in the 1990s. However, basing current policies on historical examples requires a bit of context. The Washington Institute on Near East Policy has put out an excellent piece in the past few days that clarifies the situation:
The success of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq would seem to recommend the same course of action in current cases such as Libya, where a tottering regime might still be able to lash out at rebel enclaves and cause significant humanitarian suffering. The differences between Iraqi in 1991 and Libya today are obvious, however.
First, Saddam’s regime had just fought a major war with U.S.-led forces, while rapprochement has been the focus of recent U.S.-Libyan relations. Within the context of antigovernment uprisings, no-fly zones effectively transform the foreign power into a combatant — presenting them as purely humanitarian in nature stretches credibility. Accordingly, such zones are best used as a means of curtailing the sovereignty of a regime with which the United States already has quasi-warlike relations.
Furthermore, U.S. military forces in the south were still occupying approximately one-eighth of Iraqi territory when the northern no-fly zone was established, and the establishment of Kurdish safe havens required further deployment of significant U.S. and coalition ground forces to deter regime incursions. Such ground deployments in Libya are probably not on the table. Most important, the United States could draw on strongly worded UN resolutions to underwrite its actions in 1991, whereas no such body of documents is available for use today.
In addition to being highly context-specific, no-fly and no-drive zones are notoriously difficult to implement. The rules of engagement (ROE) governing the mission must be exceptionally well conceived, and the military commanders must receive strong political support when they act within the rules. Any set of ROE must include a list of offending actions (known as the “ROE trip,” short for “tripwire”) plus “response options” (a set of pre-agreed retaliatory targets) and a “response ratio” (which establishes how vigorously the offender will be punished for transgressing the zone). U.S. forces needed twelve years of no-fly zone patrolling in Iraq to perfect the system, and even then the zones generated controversy because they often required relatively junior officers to use their initiative in interpreting the ROE.
In general, an aggressive opponent — such as Saddam and, perhaps, the Qadhafi regime — will regularly test the ROE, and the patrolling power may need to retaliate disproportionately to deter proscribed actions, including attacks on civilians and rebel forces. Any ROE, particularly those governing no-drive zones, may be prone to uncontrolled escalation, drawing the patrolling power into more significant military operations than initially intended. Collateral damage among civilian and friendly forces is always a risk, as occurred on April 14, 1994, when two U.S. helicopters were destroyed by other U.S. aircraft in the northern no-fly zone, killing twenty-six coalition and Iraqi personnel.
Military action should remain a last resort when all other options have failed. Increasing pressure on Gadhafi and his subordinates may cause some of his support to fragment, or even turn on the embattled colonel. An ill-conceived intervention can end up being far worse than taking no action at all. Any attempt by the United States to try to resolve the situation in Libya must be driven by a clearly thought-out strategy, not a response to political pressure.
Of course the Obama Administration wants to prevent bloodshed in Libya, but while a no-fly zone may seem to be a good way to do that, the devil is in the details.
— Jordan D’Amato