For Libya, What's Next After No-Fly?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowSteve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and the man behind the popular political blog "The Washington Note", and Fred Kaplan, "War Stories" columnist at Slate and a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, discussed how the U.N. Security Council voted to authorize military action to protect civilians in Libya.

Yesterday, after Colonel Moammar Gadhafi threatened to "have no mercy" on rebels in the city of Benghazi, the United Nations Security Council took the first step toward making the crisis in Libya an international conflict, voting to impose a no-fly zone in the country and authorizing "all necessary measures" to protect civilians.

Hours after the vote, the Libyan government announced a cease-fire, publicly freezing their military operations. That's provided little comfort to the rest of the world; so far, it has been difficult for governments and news organizations to confirm whether Gadhafi's forces are indeed abiding by the order.

Steve Clemons echoed these concerns, fearing that the cease-fire may just be a delay tactic.

I think Gadhafi is a smart guy. He's got his lunatic image, but he's got a smart, savvy way in which the real story of Libya right now, which is not a good one, is the comeback of Gadhafi. He was pushed to the edge and he demonstrated an ability to kind of roll back. Part of that is because the opposition is under-equipped, but now he's doing exactly what [his son] said they would do, which is to draw out a civil war and set up a line. We'll have to see how supporters in the Arab world resource the opposition to him, but he's buying time.

Fred Kaplan agreed with Clemons' assessment, but doubted that Gadhafi's temporary draw-down would make any difference in the long run.

Buying time works against him in this new context as well. Setting up a no-fly zone, that's going to take a little bit of time...Also, I don't think rebels are just going to sit there and accept that there's going to be some de facto line of demarcation beyond which they won't plow any further to the west. Firing will commence one way or another, and the Libyan troops will fire back, and the powers authorized by the U.N. can do what they will be coming to do.

Which raises the question: is the Libya no-fly zone merely a preamble to war, as it was in Iraq?

Clemons said that the perceived efficacy of a no-fly zone shows that many expect it to be little more than a gesture in advance of action.

This is now a direct, full-scale intervention. The no-fly zone, I think even from the beginning it was clear, was going to essentially be a slippery slope into other things...It was always a fake debate, a fake issue in the sense that it would not matter on the ground, it would not change the equation, and it was always going to be in this direction.

If Clemons is correct, the parallels with U.S. involvement in Iraq are obvious. According to Fred Kaplan, the no-fly zone in Iraq precipitated heightened conflict precisely because Iraqi forces were backed into a corner. When they finally committed an act of war, it was activating radar on anti-aircraft weapons just to track American planes.

That sort of thing could happen again. The hope would be that the Libyans would just back off, that it would be hard for Gadhafito convince pilots to go up in the air. This authorization is much more than a no-fly zone; it explicitly mentions a no-fly zone, but talks about "all necessary measures."

"And by the way," Kaplan continued, "it's to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack." He said that not only gives U.N. forces broad authority to take military action almost anywhere in Libya so long as civilians are in the area, but also to respond to the threat of violence without any having taken place yet.

The Security Council's resolution comes on the heels of a unanimous vote by the Arab League last week in favor of a Libyan no-fly zone; significant, because it demonstrates a willingness within the Arab world to see international forces intervene.

For all the similarities with escalation in Iraq, the situation today is markedly different when considering the caution exhibited by the U.S. The Obama Administration has been waiting quietly for the rest of the world to respond to the crisis before taking action. That time appears to have arrived; however, Steve Clemons said that even though the Arab and international communities have now endorsed military intervention, that doesn't amount to a blanket assurance of trust for the United States.

Despite some elements of the Libyan opposition calling for a no-fly zone, and the unanimous Arab League vote, nonetheless, just beneath surface is an incredible amount of skepticism, and the view many people have is that the U.S. and the West don't become engaged in serious conflicts and embed in them and then deal with nuances. They deal with it full on and it's very hard to extract once an outcome is achieved—to back off.

For his part, Clemons felt as though there were other opportunities to influence the crisis in Libya without defaulting to the no-fly zone, almost certainly engendering a full-blown war. He specifically suggested that the international community could have instead supplied rebels with weapons, jammed Gadhafi's communications, and fed intelligence to opposition forces. In this case, he said, something like a proxy war might be more effective—and safer for the United States.

These were all ways that could have helped substantially change the facts on the ground, the ability of the opposition to wage this conflict, without having a very large profile Western military footprint, which stills cares me a lot. There's not enough discussion in my view. I do think the opposition needs to get rid of Gadhafi, but there could be some very negative consequences for us.


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Comments [19]

D.Bosworth from Portland

We had neocons, now neowimps.

Mar. 19 2011 01:58 AM

Would the show reconsider addressing this question from the economic and military angle in the coming week?
The guests today were not really that sharp.

For one, since the Russian-Ukraine natural gas spat in 2009, Europe (France, Britain) remains very concerned about its energy supplies. But, BASF/Wintershall (Germany) and Gazprom (Russia) are committed to cooperation in Libya for the EU market. Hmmm, that security council vote, again...?

(Perhaps Conflict Risk Network as the 'interventionist'/'neo-imperialist' and/or The Heritage Foundation for a 'right-wing/neo-con' perspective on this? If you want a left critique of all this, you're in Diana Johnstone territory!)

Secondly, the press has been very impressionistic about both gains and losses by pro- and anti-Qaddafi forces.
But isn't that the nature of desert warfare? See WWII in Libya: Supply lines, supply lines, supply lines! Which, to take on Benghazi and Tubrok, Qaddafi's would be stretched to their maximum. Some historical perspective please?

Mar. 18 2011 01:23 PM
dedelou from Briarwood, NY

Amazing to me is a resolution that China, India, Russia , Germany and Brazil don't care to sponsor. We are talking about the majority of the world population abstaining officially from this strange effort to protect rebels.. Hummmm.!

Mar. 18 2011 12:21 PM

Not in my worst nightmare could I imagine myself wishing victory for that murder-colonel-dictator Qaddafi.

It is amazing how little curiosity western journalists and public exercise in questioning where these “spontaneously organized” protesters have gotten their weapons from, – rifles, guns, anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets propelled grenades (RPG), ammunition, and much more.

If Arab League, a traditional friend of this anti-US, anti-Israel, anti-Semitig thug, puts its stakes in so-called “pro-democratic” protesters, then I definitely am wondering what these simultaneously awakened "democrats" all around Arab world have in store for us.

The more transparent and telling, in this regard, is the calls by Bahrain protesters to invite Iran for their “protection”. Do they really want Iran-style democracy in Bahrain?
What do Bahrainis protest against exactly ten years after referendum on 14–15 February 2001 massively supported the National Action Charter, if “in a region experiencing an oil boom, Bahrain has the fastest growing economy in the Arab world”; where less than 1% of men and only 3% of women are unemployed?

I suspect, what protesters dislike is exactly liberalism and freedoms of this country where, unlike its neighbors, “churches, Hindu temples, Sikh Gurdwara and a Jewish synagogue can be found alongside mosques”.

It seems that 81% of Muslim population is not high enough number for those seeking total Islamic domination.

Of course, Bahrain’s cooperation with western world and especially with the US is not the last “concern” for Islamists.

By the way our media seems ignoring the act by those Egyptian Revolution Youth, which Obama’s administration was so supportive of. A few days ago they refused to meet Hillary Clinton during her visit to Egypt.

What a surprise!

Mar. 18 2011 11:37 AM
Dave from New Jersey

Raise your hand if you opposed the US invasion of Iraq. Keep your hand raised if you think the US is late in intervening in Lybia. Now take that hand and smack yourself in the face for being so hypocritical.

(not aimed at anyone in particular; I haven't read all the posts here...)

Mar. 18 2011 11:37 AM
Bernard from Bronx

So Libya is an independent country with a government that appears to have the support of most Libyans. A rebel group decides to challenge that authority and when the government acts to keep the country together the West sees something wrong with it and declares war essentially on the country. At what point does the stench of Western hypocrisy get to be too much to tolerate? How many countries can you think of that brutally suppressed insurgencies in order to keep their country together? The U S of 1861 ring a bell?

Mar. 18 2011 11:30 AM
kenm durkin from home

Great show but wonder if the "Military writer" mr. Kaplan ever actually served in the military?

Mar. 18 2011 11:27 AM
Peter Kakouris from Long Island

The U.S should not have any involvement in Libya whatsoever. It's not our fight, not our struggle. We should stop thinking we know what's best for others. Whatever the people of Libya accomplish, let them do it themselves.

Mar. 18 2011 11:24 AM
Lori from Montclair, NJ

Much as I "feel" for the people of Libya....

Why not go to Ivory Coast? How about Cuba? Or Tibet? Gaza? Etc.

I'm having bad flashbacks of "we will be greeted as liberators".

Mar. 18 2011 11:24 AM
Shana from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn

I am disappointed that the West is in such a rush to get involved in Libya's civil war to "protect civilians," but when it comes to Bahrain, civilian deaths are perfectly acceptable. The fact that Britain is leading the effort makes it all the more obvious that they see this as an opportunity to get a more amenable leader in place.

If the West actually cared about any of these people, we would be involved in Somalia, Sudan, Bahrain, Algeria, North Korea, Chechnya and any number of nations where the civilian population is suffering terrible attrocities.

Mar. 18 2011 11:22 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Regarding why a no-fly zone in Iraq, or now in Libya and not one over Gaza in 2009, that is a reasonable question that has to be answered reasonably, and is a complicated question in international law.

If there were an uprising of "indians" and they were fortifying reservations, shooting rockets, and sending out suicide braves to blow up settlers in Montana or Kentucky or New Mexico, would the US military have the right to use air power to quell the uprising? And would the UN have the right to impose a "no fly zone" over the US to stop a massacre of "indians?"

The question of what the UN, or outside powers can or can't do is very complicated and not always clear under what we call "international law."

Mar. 18 2011 11:21 AM
Shana from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn

I am disappointed that the West is in such a rush to get involved in Libya's civil war to "protect civilians," but when it comes to Bahrain, civilian deaths are perfectly acceptable. The fact that Britain is leading the effort makes it all the more obvious that they see this as an opportunity to get a more amenable leader in place.

If the West actually cared about any of these people, we would be involved in Somalia, Sudan, Bahrain, Algeria, North Korea, Chechnya and any number of nations where the civilian population is suffering terrible attrocities.

Mar. 18 2011 11:21 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Ghaddafi is SMART. He knows exactly how to hang on to power. He did the smart thing, and accepted the UN ceasefire. The UN did NOT authorize regime change, but only a "no fly zone." Making war on Khaddafi, to overthrow him and his regime, would now be in violation of the ceasefire.
It would be seen as UN aggression by most members.

Mar. 18 2011 11:13 AM
h l

ugh. and here come the pro-israeli comments that want everyone to ignore the atrocities coming out of israel. people aren't buying it, so stop please.

Mar. 18 2011 11:09 AM
gary from queens

Caller Mel is conflating two disparate examples.

The US constitution allows the federal government to suppress violent insurrection.

The Israeli government had done that with Gaza, after a thousand rockets were launched from there and into isareli cities.

Qadaffi is reacting to protest rallies. Intentionally bombing civilian areas of political opposition.

Israel targeted spots where rockets were being launched. Very surgical, plus troops were sent in for greater surgical capabilities, which placed the lives of troops at risk.

I oppose the no fly zone for a number of reasons---as stated by Andrew McCarthy. But regardless or that, there are gig differences. Mel take note.

Mar. 18 2011 10:43 AM
h l from new york

That first caller, MEL! Brilliantly said! I wish we could hear your voice more. This is exactly what so many people are thinking, but the media, especially wnyc will hardly mention it, or want to hear about it.

Mar. 18 2011 10:38 AM
Peter Conolly-Smith from Jackson heights

Re. call in from Mel saying why no-fly zone now, over Libya, but not over Gaza in January 2009?

Hey Brian -- no need to equivocate re. Mel's comment. It's enough to say that the Gaza invasion of 2009 and the Libyan situation today are different, as are all situations that may (or may not) merit international interventions. Beyond pointing out apples and oranges, why protest too much, methinks.

Mar. 18 2011 10:23 AM
gary from queens

What a terrible dilemma for liberals. They can no longer throw peanuts at Bush. They have their man in the White House and must come up with a coherent policy.

Do they support the Neocon editors of William F Buckley Jr's National Review online who want the US to militarily intervene on behalf of Libyan rebels, or do they support my conservative hero, Andrew McCarthy, who wants to refrain from US military intervention? And he makes good arguments at:
On the NRO Libya Editorial, I Respectfully Dissent
March 17, 2011 10:40 A.M.

Saddam was not evil enough for liberals to support military force to topple him. But Qaddafi is? Please explain that. Anyone?

Mar. 18 2011 09:42 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Can Obama look any weaker or more indecisive? "Ghadafi must go" he said two weks ago, then did nothing. After allowing Mubarak to fall, the Arab leaders were ridiculing him privately. France (!) has taken the lead on this, however misguided it may be at this point. Now he commits us to a stupid endeavor that may freeze a final victory for Ghadafi, but will allow him to remain and an open ended commitment for us.
Meanwhile, Bahrain is the real strategic domino and the Saudis wouldn't even allow HILLARY OR GATES to land their plane to discuss it. They don't want to hear about "restraint" from a Community Organizer after watching Tunisia and Egypt fall to who knows what future.

Saudis increasingly see Obama now as the "weak horse" and are not willing to cast their lot with him. Wednesday, they signed the Chinese government firm Sinopec to develop their
big new refinery complex....and gave them 37.5% ownership.

Someone tell Obama that there is no such thing as "managed decline" of a great happens quickly. Just ask the British.

Mar. 18 2011 09:30 AM

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