Libyan no-fly zone: addressing questions and dispelling myths
By Matt Southworth on 03/30/2011 @ 05:06 PM
President Obama delivered a primetime speech on March 28 to justify military intervention in Libya. The President evoked “a looming humanitarian crisis” to justify military action. In the eyes of some commentators, the president failed to obtain the appropriate authorizations for starting this new war. The multilateral approach to the Libyan no-fly zone—commenced through United Nations Resolution 1973 and backed by the Arab League—does not exonerate the President from seeking Congressional approval for war, especially since the United States is doing nearly all of the heavy lifting on the Libyan no-fly zone.
Addressing questions and dispelling myths:
Did the establishment of a no-fly zone (NFZ) prevent genocide in Libya? In the short term, the president argues the NFZ has prevented civilian deaths. Of course, one cannot decisively prove or disprove the U.S. led NFZ did, in fact, prevent civilian deaths that didn’t happen. Moreover, the intervention has gone well beyond the NFZ authorized by the UN Security Council. In the long term, assuming military intervention will cause fewer deaths than an active civil war is simply wrong. War exacerbates humanitarian crisis and civilian deaths; Libya will be no exception. Escalating civil war in Libya does not undermine the conditions for genocide; rather, it creates them.
The conflict in Libya is unlike the non-violent uprisings in other parts of the Middle East. When anti-Qaddafi forces took up arms, the uprising became a civil war. Now that we have a civil war in Libya, some say the United States should arm the opposition—under the assumption they can depose Qaddafi and will replace his regime with something better. Picking sides in a civil war by arming “rebels” in Libya—whom the U.S. knows little about—could prove to be hugely counterproductive and have grave unintended consequence. (Afghan Mujahedeen, anyone?) Yet there is a “fierce debate” within Congress and the administration about whether or not the U.S. should arm the anti-Qaddafi forces. Here, history informs us: this would be a foolish misstep.
Libya has the minimal—or less—ability to manufacture small arms and no ability to manufacture tanks, war planes and other major military hardware. The Libyan government imports military equipment from other countries—primarily Russia and China, but also from European nations and the U.S. If the U.S. wants to diminish the possibility of long term civil war, it should vigorously lead and recruit other nations to participate in an arms embargo (a small effort has already begun and should be expanded). Arming the Qaddafi opposition completely undermines any effort to prevent protracted civil war in Libya.
President Obama raised the stakes early on by calling for President Qaddafi’s removal. While the President insists the U.S. mission is not directed toward regime change in Libya, many have wondered what happens if Qaddafi doesn’t go. Since the U.S.—through a reactionary response to Qaddafi’s rhetoric about Benghazi—has effectively empowered and emboldened Qaddafi and his supporters, it is difficult to see how this plays out under the current strategy. . An effective U.S. strategy would focus on diplomatic engagement, to ease the problem.
The conflict does provide a reminder of the importance of structures within the United States government to help prevent these types of conflicts – the very structures that are consistently being undermined by budget cuts in the Congress. As of March 30th, the U.S. has spent $550 million enforcing the Libyan NFZ. According to Politico, the U.S. has flown over 1,000 missions, fired over 200 Tomahawk missiles and over 600 precision-guided weapons in Libya. Less than two weeks of funding for the U.S. led war in Libya is equivalent to 13 years of funding for the United States Institute of Peace, which is currently at risk of having its $42 million per year operational budget dramatically slashed by Congress. Moreover, the ability of the U.S. to respond to crisis through the Complex Crisis Fund is under constant threat of being cut by Congress. The full $100 million per year request—which the CCF has never received—could be filled for over five years with what the U.S. has spent so far in Libya. The U.S. must shift from a reactionary foreign policy to a model which works to prevent crisis and conflict from happening in the first place.
It is my view that sanctions and no-fly zones are a part of a process which leads to putting troops on the ground in the future (see: Iraq). In 10 years, will another President deploy Marines and soldiers to Libya in an effort to “finish” what President Obama is starting today? Will this president evade Congressional authority under the precedent set by President Obama? Senator Carl Levin plans to introduce a “resolution authorizing the U.S. and allied military action in Libya” according to Congressional Quarterly. The problems in Libya are political problems that cannot be solved with military force; we must ensure that Congress gets this message loud and clear.