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Is A No-Fly Zone What Libyans Want?


Jerry Haber observes:


[L]iberal interventionists are highly selective in their moral outrage, and … suffer from a “Saving-Private-Ryan” complex – they will intervene to save people with whom they identify, people on their side. But if the civilians happen to be on other the side of their tribal divide, they become silent.

Indeed. None of those now calling for a no-fly zone over Libya have called for a no-fly zone over Gaza. The difference clearly hinges on whether one has a greater affiliation with those dropping the bombs or those getting bombed.

But does this shed any light on the question of whether a no-fly zone should be enforced over Libya? Not really.

If we reduce such questions to questions of affiliation then all we will ever do is look to see where “my people” stand. If enough progressives start calling for a no-fly zone, then suddenly it becomes the right thing. But if its advocates are all neocons or neo-liberals, then it can’t be right.

This isn’t analysis — it’s politics reduced to the expression of allegiance.


So, turning back to the question of a no-fly zone, let’s forget about whether Charles Krauthammer or Sarah Palin think it’s a good idea, and let’s at least expose the array of questions embedded in what is falsely being presented as a single question. The question is not simply, do you favor or oppose a no-fly zone being imposed over Libya?

The first question is: who, if anyone, has the capability to effectively impose a no-fly zone?

I can’t give an authoritative answer to that question, but I would assume that a combined NATO force would have the capacity — though I might be wrong, given the commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Arab League now backs a no-fly zone. If some of its members also contributed forces, this might diminish the perception that a no-fly zone was strictly a Western intervention.

The second question is: would a no-fly zone have a desirable impact on the civil war?

So far, Gaddafi does not seem to have relied heavily on his ability to bomb or fire missiles on his opponents, so even if a no-fly zone was already in place, it’s not clear that it would have had much impact on the fight thus far. Even so, if Benghazi ends up getting flattened, no one will be served by the hindsight that a no-fly zone could have prevented that from happening.

The third question is: on whose authority could a no-fly zone be implemented?

This can be viewed as a legal question but it’s really a question of political legitimacy.

As with so many good intentions, there is a narcissistic current underlying many of the current calls for intervention:

  • the perceived need that “we must do something” even when it’s not clear that the proposed course of action can be implemented or will be effective
  • the need to promote the image of the United States as a force for good in the world
  • the need to show the world that the US is capable of limiting the power of tyrants
  • the need for prominent figures to assume a proactive political posture in order to sharpen the contrast with their political opponents

None of these serves well as a lens for focusing on the actual needs of the Libyan people.
In an editorial, The Guardian notes:

Some Libyan rebels have called for a no-fly zone, but until now – and this may change – the mood of the Libyan uprising is that this is their fight and their fight alone. Quite apart from the unwarranted legitimacy a bombing campaign would (once again) confer on the Libyan leader among his rump support in Tripoli and the damage it would do to attempts to split his camp, a major western military intervention could have unforeseen political consequences for the very forces it would be designed to support. A no-fly zone saved lives in Kurdish northern Iraq, but failed to protect the Shias in the south under Saddam Hussein. The moral strength of the Libyan rebels and their political claim to represent the true voice of the people both rest partly on the fact that, like the Egyptians and the Tunisians, they have come this far alone. The revolt is theirs, they are no one else’s proxy, and the struggle is about ending tyranny rather than searching for new masters. Even if Gaddafi’s forces succeed in checking the advance of rebel forces, and the civil war becomes protracted, it is the home-grown nature of this revolt that contains the ultimate seeds of the destruction of Gaddafi’s regime. Thus far, it is Gaddafi and his sons who have had to import hired guns from abroad.

The need to maintain a self-reliant revolution can be overstated. I doubt that any of the weaponry of any value that either side is using right now was manufactured in Libya. This is a fight engaging Libyan hands and hearts but using foreign arms. What those outside the fight must attend to above all else is the Libyan voice.

President Obama has already said that Muammar Gaddafi has lost his legitimacy as Libya’s leader, so an important and necessary precursor to the whole debate about providing military or non-military assistance to Libya’s revolutionaries, is formal recognition of their leadership: the Interim National Transitional Council in Benghazi.

The Council has formed an executive team headed by Dr Mahmoud Jebril Ibrahim El-Werfali and Dr Ali Aziz Al-Eisawi who will represent Libya’s foreign affairs and have been delegated the authority to negotiate and communicate with all members of the international community and to seek international recognition.

The Transitional Council’s third decree dated March 5, ends: “we request from the international community to fulfil its obligations to protect the Libyan people from any further genocide and crimes against humanity without any direct military intervention on Libyan soil.”

That seems to leave open the question about whether a no-fly zone is being sought.

If Obama want to show he’s a man of action, the most decisive thing he could do right now is recognize the Transitional Council and send an official US representative to Benghazi to find out exactly what forms of assistance the revolutionaries seek and see what kinds of assistance the US and its allies might be able to provide.

Paul Woodward - War in Context

Paul Woodward describes himself by nature if not profession, as a bricoleur. A dictionary of obscure words defines a bricoleur as “someone who continually invents his own strategies for comprehending reality.” Woodward has at various times been an editor, designer, software knowledge architect, and Buddhist monk, while living in England, France, India, and for the last twenty years the United States. He currently lives frugally in the Southern Appalachians with his wife, Monica, two cats and a dog Woodward maintains the popular website/blog, War in Context (, which "from its inception, has been an effort to apply critical intelligence in an arena where political judgment has repeatedly been twisted by blind emotions. It presupposes that a world out of balance will inevitably be a world in conflict."

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