Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | March 11, 2011

Why No-Fly is Flawed Strategy

John Kerry’s opinion piece in the March 11 Washington Post, which analyzes the no-fly zone option for Libya, throws into useful relief the reasons why the U.S. Defense Department would approach a no-fly zone (NFZ) with reluctance. Kerry’s editorial is quite reasonable; and with the Obama administration so silent on the policy argument, it’s good to have someone in public office lay out a careful case for an NFZ. But Kerry’s case is pretty much what we would expect it to be. The narrow purpose of an NFZ would be preventing Qaddafi from mounting air attacks on his people.

The important military concern about framing an NFZ this way is that it ignores what Qaddafi’s ultimate objective is. He is not using military force because he wants to slaughter his people. He is using it for the conventional purpose of reconquering the territory of Libya. He may not care very much how many people he kills, but his goal isn’t killing them, it’s retaking territory and restoring the status quo ante.

In this, Qaddafi is unlike Saddam Hussein and the Serbian thugs of the 1990s. Saddam sought to put down the ethnic insurgencies that were a perennial problem for him, but he was not fighting a conventional war of movement – of territory lost and retaken – inside his borders. (In only one case, when he brutally quelled the southern Shi’as after the coalition withdrawal from Desert Storm, was reestablishing sovereign control of territory even partly at issue.)

The fundamental feature of the problem for Saddam was the existence of the restive ethnic groups. The Serb leaders in Bosnia in the 1990s were in much the same case, according to their perception. Although territory was in dispute (in a thoroughly non-linear battlespace), that was not the central issue of the conflict. The principal problem, from the Serbs’ perspective, was the presence of Muslims.

In both cases, the strategic objective of the attacks was eradicating ethnic enemies. That is not the kind of war Qaddafi is fighting. There is certainly an element of internal discord in Libya, centered on the tribal structure, but it has little in common with the fathomless, centuries-old Serb-Muslim divide or the divisions within Saddam’s Iraq, which involved the irreconcilable Kurds in the north and the Shi’a “Marsh Arabs” of the river delta in the south, ruled by Saddam’s secularist Sunni cohort. These features are not present in Qaddafi’s strategic problem.

The crucial point for policy and strategy flows from this reality. An NFZ could be largely effective in keeping Qaddafi’s aircraft on the ground, but still not prevent him from retaking Libya. At the moment, the rebels are poorly armed and without coherent strategic leadership. CIA director James Clapper was terribly impolitic in his unnecessary prognostication this week that Qaddafi would prevail, but his analysis wasn’t invalid. (It is illuminating to consider that he and Obama discuss these matters on a regular basis. There is a sort of clinical dispassion about distant events hovering over their public utterances: an assumption they don’t give voice to – because they see no need to – that U.S. leaders can spitball ideas and pop up with prejudicial analyses in public and it won’t matter.)

The NFZ enforced in Bosnia in the mid-1990s is instructive in this regard. Operation Deny Flight was launched in April 1993 and was enforced for more than two years while the Bosnian Serb forces committed many of the terrible atrocities remembered by the West. The siege of Srebrenica in 1993 was mounted with battlefield artillery, as were the near-daily poundings of Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities throughout the period of the NFZ. Srebrenica was held under siege conditions by the Serbs in 1995 with artillery and motorized infantry, even while it was supposedly a UN-protected enclave. The NFZ prevented fixed-wing aircraft from being used by the Serbs, and inhibited (but did not quash entirely) the use of helicopters.  But it didn’t prevent the Serbs from gaining control of territory, holding urban enclaves at risk, and killing Muslim civilians.

What did eventually drive the Serbs back was the air strike and Tomahawk missile campaign of September 1995, in which NATO destroyed the Serbs’ air defenses and gave the Bosnian government’s troops (the recognized unity government led by Bosnian Muslims) the advantage in destroying or capturing Serb-held positions.

Qaddafi can defeat the rebels without the freedom to use airpower whenever he wants – unless the rebels are armed and organized by an outside force. As excruciating as it was to watch Bob Gates give alibi after alibi to Congress about why an NFZ is just too darn hard, there is an important sense in which reason is on the side of viewing an NFZ with extreme reluctance. It doesn’t address the real problem in Libya, which is the fact that Qaddafi could still regain control of the country.

None of this means that there is nothing to be done about the awful events in Libya. It does mean that a narrowly conceived NFZ – one whose purpose is so narrow even John Kerry would endorse it – is mistargeted. If we enforce an NFZ on Qaddafi while he reconquers Libya – then what?

J.E. Dyer blogs at Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.”  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.



  1. Agreed. There is a strong and abiding public belief that controlling events on the ground is easily accomplished by putting planes in the air, but it just isn’t the case. Our record of success with No-Fly missions is not exactly something to write home about.

    I agree also with your characterization of Clapper’s prediction, and I share your impression that elements of the administration seem to say whatever comes to mind without considering the consequences of their words. At a time when we need most to convey that we are serious and thoughtful, we are blabbering contradictory, dangerous nonsense.

  2. Steven — welcome. You’ve passed the hardest wicket: the first post. There’s a one-time “approval” for all new commenters; keeps down the spam. As long as you post using the same user name and email, your comments will post automatically from now on.

    I’m not opposed to NFZs a priori, but they have to be considered in light of the total context– not just the political convenience of the moment. I can hear the Pentagon planners now. “If we enforce a no-fly zone solely dedicated to keeping planes on the ground, we’ll end up just like in Bosnia. We’ll literally be ENFORCING the situation that allows the bad guy to achieve his objective.”

  3. Those suggesting a NFZ are motivated by a simple emotion-backed demand; someone should do something or rather, appear to be doing something.

    The simple fact of the matter is that Libya will be ruled by either Qaddafi or a theocratic government. No institutional infrastructure or oppositional leadership exists in Libya for the support of a secular, democratic government.

    Ironically, the only way to create such an infrastructure is to militarily conquer Libya and impose a colonial infrastructure…but colonialism is anathema to political correctness, so it’s a non-starter.

    Offering assistance to the Libyan rebels is assisting in the de facto creation of an Islamic state. Refusing to help is choosing to allow Qaddafi to remain in power.

    So there are no good choices.

    Doing nothing is the least costly short-term choice.

    Assisting the rebels and refusing to support Qadaffi, with the full understanding of the future consequence of the formation of another theocratic government and the predictable necessity to confront it, is the least costly long-term choice.

    Opposing Qaddafi is the morally correct position.

    Accepting that it will lead to another Iranian /Muslim Brotherhood style government is patently obvious.

    Holding that government and the public which supports it accountable for its future actions is acting maturely.

    Sooner or later, Muslim societies are going to have to reap the entirely predictable consequences of embracing a religion of violence. It’s still true; those who live by the sword die by the sword.

  4. It may be callous to admit it, but the US has no vital strategic interest riding on the outcome of the civil war in Libya. Intervention is not worth the death of one single US soldier (or flyer).
    It is now quite probable that Ghaddafi will prevail over the insurgency unless the latter is supported by the insertion of US and NATO ground-forces. Imposing a no-fly zone will not determine the outcome one way or the other, it may only serve to prolong the agony. One thing is absolutely certain, there is no public support in the US for invading yet another Moslem country.
    It will be very difficult for many people, in the Administration, and across both Democrat and Republican parties, to stand aside and see the extinguishment of the insurgency by Ghadaffi’s better-armed and organized forces. We may well witness heart-rending scenes of reprisals against the rebels. However, this is a relatively small war, and the US and her allies cannot remedy all the ills of the world. After all, we have (wisely) stood aside from the major humanitarian disaster which has taken place in the Congo and other places in sub-Saharan Africa in recent decades. If we are of a mind to use US forces (and the scarce tax-dollars that fund our military) for humanitarian relief, we need look no further than Japan, where they would be far better employed to this end.
    The dilemma that Libya poses for Americans of all political hues is perhaps best illustrated by recent comment from General Wesley Clark on the one hand, and Paul Wolfowitz, on the other. Clark has warned against intervention of any sort. Wolfowitz supports such military intervention as may prove necessary to assure the defeat of Ghaddafi. On balance (and definitely on their respective records of getting it right) Clarke’s analysis must be preferred. I think Wolfowitz is concerned that by turning our faces away we will be seen in the Arab world (and elsewhere) as unreliable allies in the fight against depotism. We missed that boat along time ago. We have never been much of a friend to democracy in the Arab and Islamic worlds anyway. We have installed and propped-up compliant despots such as the Shah, Mubarak – even Saddam until he overreached. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a foreign-policy genius to know that you cannot undo one expensive mistake with another. The real lesson is that we should leave the lot of them strictly alone to sort out their own domestic arrangements. The people of Libya are much more likely to find true democracy from the evolution of a functioning middle class than from the barrel of a (US) gun. It should give us pause for thought that our principal undisputed achievement in Iraq (by way of two decades of sanctions and two ruinous wars) was the scattering and distruction of the only large, educated, middle-class in the Arab world.

    The only interest that the US has in the post cold-war Middle East is to ensure the smooth flow of oil, and that the locals aren’t further motivated towards terror against the US (This isn’t a popular view with either humanitarian interventionists or the neo-conservatives). Anyhow, whoever prevails in Libya (and elsewhere in the oil-producing regions of the world) will need to sell their oil to pay the bills. And US interventionist policy in the region has done far more to provoke than ameliorate anger towards us.

    The only real game-changer will occur if the Libyan conflict bogs-down in a bloody indefinite stalemate with the oil-ports out of action and world oil prices heading north. The dilemma is that the only sort of intervention (NFZ) that is in any way politically acceptable is also the most likely to bring about that outcome.

    But, for the moment, I am inclined to agree that the best policy is to do nothing other than warning Ghaddafi that he (and his regime) will be held accountable (Like the Sudanese leaders) for any human-rights abuses against his opponents. The inability by Ghaddafi, his playboy sons, and his relatives and generals, to travel abroad or access their ill-gotten billions, will motivate pause for reflection much more effectively and cheaply than all the F16s on the planet.

  5. “The inability by Ghaddafi, his playboy sons, and his relatives and generals, to travel abroad or access their ill-gotten billions, will motivate pause for reflection much more effectively and cheaply than all the F16s on the planet.”

    Once he wins, Ghaddafi will be able to travel abroad and access his funds. The continued flow of oil out of Libya will ensure that outcome for Ghaddafi.

    • Within a year of winning Khadaffy and his sons will have celebrities flocking to Libya to accept honoraria and kiss their hands.

      • so what, it’ll be twice as long before ANY of his kids get any more diplomas from British schools, no matter (probably anyway) how much gold gets loosed from the purse.

  6. CHARLES DUELFER suggests an alternative to putting up no-fly strips.

  7. I am more than a little confused by our nation’s constantly changing view of military action against another sovereign nation. Any hostile military action against another nation is an act of war. Launching mortar rounds into the hostile territory is an act of war. (Except, in the view of the left, if done by Palestinians to Israel.) Sending airplanes into a territory to shoot down that country’s military aircraft is an invasion. It is an invasion of soverign territory, just as sending a million man army over the border would be, only an invasion of smaller magnitude. In for a penny, in for a pound.

    A lot of folks now oppose our military actions against Iraq following 9/11. There were multiple reasons for it, although only the risk of WMDs was widely discussed before the invasion. And we were already enforcing no fly zones as one consequence of a previous military cease fire, so the exercise of military force against Iraq changed dramatically in quantity and quality, but not in character.

    In Libya, we have no pre-existing state of war; no unfinished hostilities are pending. Enforcing a no-fly zone would create a state of war between us and Libya. That is a fairly momentous decision. Even if we are not concerned with justifying the war under international law, we should be concerned with the practical calculus of whether “we” will win and what will be the results.

    Aiding the rebels, if they do not prevail, would also be considered a hostile act by the Libyan regime. We could try to do it surreptitiously, to provide plausible deniability, or we could do so openly and court the rebels in anticipation of their victory. It is not clear what favor we would gain with the rebels if they do prevail.

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aid them, but we should have a good analysis of the probable results.

  8. I’m not in the least bit surprised that you are confused, Vinnie. In fact, foreign-policy confusion is the one truely bi-partisan policy in our divided nation.

    We have intervened in the Middle East and North-Africa for generations. First we imposed and maintained a series of nasty dictators. Now we are executing an unconvincing ‘volte-face’ and we are supporting those who are attempting to unseat them. All of this has been done at ruinous expense to the US taxpayer (and more than occasional loss of US life). None of it has benefited the US and its interests one iota. Whoever is in power in these lands has to sell their oil to us to pay the bills and endow their Swiss bank-accounts. The sole result of US intervention in the Middle East has been to make us hated accross an entire region, and much less secure. Sorry, there is an additional result: the emptying of our treasury by a series of trillion dollar military adventures.
    I am inclined to differ with you on Iraq. There was no overwhelmning US interest at stake in either Iraq war. We forget that Kuwait was once an integral part of Mesopotamia. The British, the then colonial power, hived off Kuwait (the area which they believed contained most of the oil-reserves in Mesopotemia) and put it in the hands of their pet Emir – a stooge whom they could rely on to give exclusive drilling rights to BP (Yes, the same people who gave us the recent sticky multi-billion dollar mess in the Gulf). Since when was it the function of the US to preserve the British imposed status-quo? The oil costs the same whether it comes with an Iraq or Kuwait label.
    Iraq II was even less justifiable in terms of US interests. There were no WMD. We now know that the absence of WMD was one of the few ‘known knowns’ to our military-security bureaucracy when we embarked on this murky adventure. We certainly weren’t motivated by moral repulsion for Saddam, or compassion for the Khurds. During the Reagan administration (the administration in power when Saddam was gassing the Khurds (and Iranians)) he was OUR bad guy, and Rummy was his interlocutor in the State Dept. The gassing and other atrocities were another ‘known known’ to our State Dept. at the time.
    Neither intervention in Iraq achieved anything of value in term of US interests. It cost us a trillion dollars and thousands of young Americans killed and mutilated. It cost Iraq God only knows how many lives – and its entire once-prosperous middle-class, and Iraq’s one best long-term hope of becoming the first Arab democracy after the passing of Saddam.
    People tend to forget that the military is the most voracious, wasteful, and self-serving part of the government. It no different from any other part of the vast bureaucracy hung around the neck of the US taxpayer – only it is the biggest, most incompetent and worst of a bad lot. It is the worst because, not only is it the least effective and most tax-draining way to solve our foreign-policy issues, but because it comes in a ‘package-deal’ with its twisted sister – the vast security bureaucracy which does far more to erode our civil liberties than deter the statistically minor threat of terrorism.
    True small-government fiscal-conservatives need to ask themselves whether the intrusive security bureaucracy does more to augment our security than the military undermines it by invading foreign countries…….(Starting a fire, and then drowning us when they try to put it out!)

    • p.s. Rand Paul for 2012

      • seconded. May Rand Paul run in 2012 and may he run very, very far……..

        Bishkek and beyond.

        May he run a lunch counter somewhere around there

        and never have any government interference in who or what he serves.

        • Unless the neo-cons decide we need to invade Bishkek.

          • and if they do, you can be sure that Paul will be all for not having an effective collective defense with his neighbors.

            • Au contraire, the government will buy his lunches for the troops at the Halliburton rate of €200 per burger.

              Before this happens, Peter King had better have a Congressional Inquiry into the Islamic radicalization of the Bishkek lunch-counter trade.

              Save us……..

            • Au contraire, he will be able to sell his lunches to the troops at the Haliburton rate of €200 a burger.

              Before this comes to pass, Peter King can launch a Congressional Inquiry into the Islamic radicalization of the Bishkek lunch-counter trade.

              • no, he won’t be selling anything at all because he will fail to defend himself and his neighbors will remember that he contributed nothing.

                he’ll be perfectly self-reliant and dead in a ditch.

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