Libya No-Fly Zone Compared To Bosnia

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 Show, NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten talked about the status of the international intervention in Libya and how it compares with Bosnia.

The Balkan wars and the failure to prevent a genocide is a dark memory for many currently working in the U.S. government. That's why Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart and others are claiming that the reason the U.S. is bombing Libya, even though we're already involved in two costly and deeply unpopular wars. According to Gjelten, the no-fly zone in Bosnia was too narrow and came too late, after the slaughter of 8000 men and boys and after a request by Dutch peacekeepers for air strikes had been ignored.

I think that moment actually stands as the supreme example of ineffectiveness in terms of outside intervention in a conflict.

There was a Byzantine chain of command with NATO and the UN being required to approve any military action, which had devastating effects on the ground. Gjelten said the Kosovo campaign also failed because air strikes literally had to be approved by committee--which defeated the purpose of a quick response.

In order for an air campaign to be effective, pilots and their commanders need to be able to strike quickly when they see a target of opportunity or when they see a ground operation that is likely to lead very quickly to some kind of disastrous consequences for the victims. They need to be able to act quickly and when you have to reach back to your political masters and get representatives of different governments all to agree and authorize an action it really loses its effectiveness.

Gjelten said in Libya, we run the risk of an even worse situation than Kosovo because there's only an ad-hoc coalition behind the campaign. 

You've got these various governments all theoretically endorsing this operation but there's no kind of umbrella command structure, there's no overall organization or group or council that can get together and set policy so the approvals have to be worked out on a government to government to government basis, so it's just a recipe for inaction it seems to me.

But at the same time, he said doing this operation multilaterally with the support of Arab and non-NATO countries was the only tenable political choice for U.S. interference.

If the U.S. had done this on its own it might have been arguably more effective, more efficient, better run, but imagine the political blow-back of the U.S. acting alone to intervene in Libya. So there are pros and cons in either approach.

In the end, Gjelten said the no-fly zone and NATO airstrikes was effective in the Balkans, but the only reason it worked is because it was coordinated in concert with a robust ground campaign by the Croation and Bosnian armies. It's hard for him to be as optimistic with Libya.

In this case you don't have anything like that, you have rebel forces that are disorganized, untrained, undisciplined unarmed basically that don't know what they're doing. That is the real critical difference. I just don't see how air strikes alone, absent a ground campaign by the rebels is going to bring about militarily a real change in the situation in Libya that would result in the defeat of Gaddafi's forces.

So why not just remove and possibly kill Gaddafi instead of killing civilians with air strikes?

There is great fear that that would be seen as a real interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign Arab state and you might see what political, what broad political support for this operation quickly evaporate. There is fear that the political consequences of that would be greater than the military benefits that it would bring about.

Gjelten argued that we did not "win" in Bosnia, considering there were 100,000 civilians dead as a result of that war.  In Libya, you have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and France President Sarkozy saying that the only successful outcome of this mission is Gaddafi leaving power--so if we take them at their word that is the standard we should look to.