I had a hard time getting past the first sentence of this:
Defense secretary Robert Gates says the United States has not had discussions with its NATO partners about how to handle the unfolding crisis in Libya, and he believes that the United States could not quickly enforce a no-fly zone in the country to keep military jets from shooting on the citizens they’re meant to protect.
Regarding the second clause of the sentence, I would say there are valid and understandable considerations, even if I would have put the matter in different terms. More on that in a moment.
The first part of the statement cannot be accounted for in any positive way. Libya sits 300-some miles across the water from NATO member Italy, which is already scrambling to deal with a massive influx of refugees from North Africa. The rapidly failing state keeps ejecting random military weapon systems – pilots defecting with Mirage F-1 fighters, at least one warship – while its insane dictator, along with bombing his own people, is threatening to destroy the Libyan oilfields, whose output makes the nation OPEC’s tenth largest producer. Crude futures have been climbing for days. Egypt has now moved troops to her border with Libya.
Moreover, the alarming fact is that we have even less of an idea what might happen in Libya if Qaddafi is killed – or otherwise relieved of his duties – than we have of what the future holds for neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. This is the very definition of a NATO security issue.
And yet we haven’t talked to NATO about how to respond to this situation? Seriously? It’s not like we don’t have constant contact with our NATO allies through the NATO Council in Belgium and multiple allied commands. I’m not sure I see how we could avoid talking to NATO about Libya. It would have been cost-free for Secretary Gates to say we had done so, even if he had no specific conclusions or plans to report. It simply makes no sense to convey to a group of opinion writers the truly bizarre message that there has been no consultation.
At any rate, regarding the second clause of the sentence, it’s true that establishing a no-fly zone (NFZ) would not be as easy as it sounds. For one thing, it’s not clear that Italy would agree to host the air forces that would be required. Italy – Libya’s last colonial master and closest European partner – has been cagey about condemning Qaddafi. Italy has a key undersea natural gas line with Libya, and hasn’t wanted to provoke any action against it. We could waste time deploring Italy for this, but it’s a fact on the ground, and could be an obstacle to setting up a no-fly zone.
Gates is right that the speed with which events are moving militates against comprehensive planning. By the time we got an NFZ set up, we might not need it anymore. I have thought the same thing in the last couple of days, as I imagine most people with experience of military air operations have.
That said, however, it wouldn’t have taken as long to set up an NFZ as Gates’ words imply. NATO Europe is stuffed full of fighter and strike-fighter aircraft, and absolutely crawling with command and control centers. The level of military activity Qaddafi could mount is overkill against unarmed civilians, but would hardly put a dent in a NATO force, however hastily assembled. The French carrier Charles de Gaulle, with its air wing, is back from its deployment to the Indian Ocean; the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), with its four squadrons of strike-fighters, is in the Horn of Africa area and could have been back in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Libya, by now. One or two aircraft carriers could not sustain a 24-hour NFZ presence for more than a couple of days, but NATO could have scrambled its more numerous land-based air forces as well. If Italy declined to allow the use of its airfields, France, Greece, and even Tunisia might well have been more cooperative. NATO could arrange for in-air refueling.
The point is not that we should have established an NFZ, it’s that we could have. The deficit here is not in what NATO forces could have been assigned or assembled to do. That much is a simple, unarguable fact. The deficit appears to be in what the US leadership has considered appropriate or even thinkable. I would understand if Gates had said, “We’ve looked at a no-fly zone, but it was becoming clear that by the time we got one in place, the situation would probably have changed again. Our goal is to stay ahead of the problem.”
But he didn’t. What he said instead was that we hadn’t discussed handling Libya with our NATO allies at all. Nothing about that makes sense.