What are pros and cons of a no-fly zone over Libya?
As some Congressional leaders urges military intervention in Libya, the Pentagon emphasizes the difficulty of implementing a no-fly zone or other proposed military solutions.
Hussein Malla / AP
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options,‚ÄĚ Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the House Appropriations Committee. ‚ÄúLet‚Äôs just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That‚Äôs the way you do a no-fly zone.‚ÄĚ
Secretary Gates will offer President Obama ‚Äúa range of options,‚ÄĚ but he ‚Äúbelieves it is his duty to also present what the possible ramifications are of each option that is being considered,‚ÄĚ said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, with an eye towards NATO meetings Thursday that are likely to be dominated by discussion of the feasibility of a no-fly zone in Libya.
Gates is not the first Pentagon official to emphasize the difficulty of implementing a no-fly zone. But Congress is increasingly challenging whether it is really such a tricky prospect for the most exquisitely-equipped military in the world.
‚ÄúI would like to point out [Libya's] air assets are not large,‚ÄĚ said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, on ABC‚Äôs This Week with Christiane Amanpour. ‚ÄúTheir air defenses are somewhat antiquated.‚ÄĚ
Defense analysts largely concur. Putting aside the outcome of NATO talks this week and the politics of coalition-building, some options for creating a no-fly zone don‚Äôt involve a great deal of risk to US troops, they say. These might include stealth bombers or cruise missiles that could be launched from submarines or aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, or using Predator and Reaper drones.
‚ÄúWhy did we bother building a stealth bomber‚ÄĚ if not to use it to take out Libyan air defenses in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, asks Michael Knights, Lafer fellow in the Military and Security Studies Program at the The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
‚ÄúCruise missiles all would have the range to hit anything in northern Libya ‚Äď anything that matters there is within 20 kilometers of the coast,‚ÄĚ Dr. Knights adds. ‚ÄúThis stuff is easy-peasy for the United States. This is not Iraq or Afghanistan ground warfare. This is the kind of stuff the US military excels at.‚ÄĚ
What‚Äôs more, while the Army and Marine Corps have been heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy and Air Force ‚Äúare not tied down in two conflicts,‚ÄĚ Knights says. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre doing ourselves a little bit of a disservice by making a no-fly zone seem like it‚Äôs harder than it is.‚ÄĚ
So why does the Pentagon continue to underscore the risks of such an operation? ‚ÄúA characteristic of the US military is we make the difficult look easy ‚Äď so people tend to default to the military. ‚ÄėOh, we‚Äôll put up a no-fly zone,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ says retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force‚Äôs former Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance.
There are some important questions that the Obama administration ‚Äď and by extension, the Defense Department ‚Äď have yet to determine. ‚ÄúA no-fly zone over what part of the country? Only the region [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi has control over? For what period of time?‚ÄĚ Deptula asks.
What‚Äôs more, ‚ÄúIt would be wise to think about what we want the desired outcome to be,‚ÄĚ he adds. ‚ÄúWhat are the US strategic interests?‚ÄĚ
Actually, the US has a number of of strategic interests, says Michael Singh, who was former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council until 2008. ‚ÄúCertainly energy. Libya is not only a critical supplier, but the current instability has an impact on energy prices throughout the world, and that in turn has an impact on the economic security‚ÄĚ of the United States.
The US also has an interest in preventing humanitarian disaster, Mr. Singh says, though critics question why America would intervene in Libya while ignoring mass killings in other African nations.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned about concerns that the US would ‚Äúinvade for oil.‚ÄĚ
Gates cautioned against what might be said if the US takes action in ‚Äúanother country in the Middle East.‚ÄĚ
Yet just because the US has "ignored‚ÄĚ humanitarian crises in other parts of Africa does not mean it should do it now, says Singh. What‚Äôs more, the institutional conservatism of the Pentagon should not override US interests, he argues. ‚ÄúNot acting has consequences. You can‚Äôt get away from the consequences by not acting.‚ÄĚ
For example, Libyan opposition has requested US airstrikes against Colonel Qaddafi and could resent ongoing US non-intervention. The problem, says the Washington Institute‚Äôs Knights, is that if a no-fly zone helps Libyan rebels launch an assault on, say, Tripoli, the mission ‚Äúis not humanitarian any more. The United States effectively becomes a combatant ‚Äď we are effectively picking a side.‚ÄĚ
And US officials still know little about the Libyan rebels. Eastern Libya ‚Äúhas been a strong radical Islamist base since the 70‚Äôs. It‚Äôs the place that provided one of the largest number of foreign fighters to Al Qaeda in Iraq,‚ÄĚ Knights says. Many of the mid-ranking Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan are also Libyans, he adds.
Helping the opposition rebels could ‚Äúearn ourselves significant brownie points‚ÄĚ with some conservative Muslims, Knights says. ‚ÄúThe lesson might be, we can support these kinds of Islamist movements, but the key is to remain in touch with them and guide their development. The problem,‚ÄĚ he adds, ‚Äúis the gross uncertainty ‚Äď we just don‚Äôt know. That‚Äôs part of the reason why Gates is urging caution.‚ÄĚ
Indeed, the uncertainty comes with possible rewards. ‚ÄúThere are risks with a no-fly zone, and the chance that it could bring the conflict to an earlier close,‚ÄĚ says Singh.
‚ÄúThis is why military decisions are hard," he adds. "If they came with a guarantee of military victory, there would be no question about what to do.‚ÄĚ