No-Fly Zone in Libya Would Be a Disaster for the United States

American bombs falling on Muslims in a third Muslim country would not improve world's view of the United States.


Well, the stampede toward an American-imposed “no-fly zone” over Libya is on. Like many bad ideas, this one has attracted a rather unusual coalition of politicians and pundits from across the political spectrum.

It includes Republican Sen. John S. McCain from Arizona, who never encountered an American intervention he opposed, and Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry from Massachusetts, who, the last time he came upon one he supported, wound up insisting he had really been against it. Also signed on are the much-maligned “neo-cons.” No surprises there. More interesting is the growing number of liberals and neo-liberals, who hector continuously about the evils of anything that smells of “American hegemony,” but support this measure. This crowd, it might be said, favors putting the armed forces of the United States in the service of any good cause, save those that promise to advance identifiable American interests in the world. (Count me among those who think the removal of Qadhafi a worthy goal and one for the Libyans or other Arabs to carry out.)

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Departing Defense Secretary Bob Gates wisely tried to put a damper on this new war fever. In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Gates noted that a no-fly zone would entail attacks (translation: bombings) to destroy Libyan air defense systems. Such action, he said, would require more air power than a single aircraft carrier. Gates did not have to say that such a move might entail considerable collateral damage (translation: dead, innocent civilians), and, perhaps, a loss of American lives. The most underreported part of Gates’s remarks was his observation that a no-fly zone would require Congressional approval. (More on that in a moment.)

Columnist Richard Cohen has joined those favoring intervention. The United States should take the lead, he says, because, one, Qadhafi is a killer—and of Americans; and, two, the United States has the capacity to act. “We have the bucks,” he says. “We have the expertise. We have the military. We lead, they [the rest of the world] follow.” All this from a man who, if he had his way, would whack away mercilessly at the U.S. defense budget. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Anne-Marie Slaughter, until recently, director of policy planning for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reminiscent of her neo-con predecessors a decade ago, offers in a New York Times op-ed, hopes for a more democratic Middle East and abstractions as justifications for a no-fly zone. (The Times failed to mention her past affiliation.) “Now we have a chance," she says, "to support a real new beginning in the Muslim world—a new beginning of accountable governments that can provide services and opportunities for their citizens in ways that could dramatically decrease support for terrorist groups and violent extremism.” But should great nations go to war on behalf of "new beginnings" and a "chance?"

In the space next to Slaughter's piece, the Times’s regular columnist, Ross Douthat, cites a Center for a New American Security finding that Eastern Libya, the centerpiece of the current rebellion, supplied more foreign fighters per capita to join the Iraqi insurgency than any other region the Arab world. This hardly bodes well for Slaughter’s hopes.

Slaughter would have the administration create legal and other fictions to camouflage what will clearly be an American-led effort as part of any international consortium that might be cobbled together. Expecting the Chinese and Russians to block United Nations Security Council approval of the no-fly zone, she recommends that the United States act through the Arab League. Now there is one hotbed of democrats! (“I regret to inform you, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, that your brave son/daughter died today in service of the Arab League—or the Gulf Cooperation Council—or the Organization of the Islamic Conference—or whomever.” What president in his right mind would sign such a letter?) [Vote Now: Is Obama handling the Libya crisis the right way?]

And what about the United States Congress? Slaughter informs her readers that “that debate has now been had.” Where? Surely not where democratic nations hold their governments “accountable,” in legislative bodies the people elect. Back in 2005, Slaughter was taking a different tack. In a piece in the Washington Post, she and Leslie Gelb called for legislation "requiring a congressional declaration of war in advance of any commitment of troops that promises sustained combat.” Perhaps she does not believe that a no-fly zone constitutes “sustained combat.” Perhaps she does not believe "boots on the ground" would follow, should the no-fly zone prove insufficient. Her predecessors clearly thought likewise when they recommended no-fly zones in other places.

Any American-initiated action that resulted in Qadhafi remaining in power would be interpreted worldwide as a military and diplomatic defeat for the United States. "Make no mistake," as Obama might put it, televised coverage of American bombs falling on Muslims in but a third Muslim country will not improve the U.S. standing in the world, whatever its intentions.

If the administration is foolish enough to follow the advice of those who advocate military action in support of no discernible American interest, the president should state reasons before a joint session of Congress, and Congress should sanction the enterprise. Gates is trying to spare Obama and the American people a catastrophe. The president would do well to listen to him.

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