Globe Editorial

For now, US must resist call for no-fly zone over Libya

March 8, 2011

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IF IT becomes clear that Moammar Khadafy is using air power for mass killings of civilians, then Senator John Kerry’s call for the creation of a no-fly zone should be heeded. But until then, President Obama should take the advice of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and senior military officials who oppose the idea. They warn that a no-fly zone would require attacks on Libyan air defenses — an act of war — followed by extensive patrolling of the skies over a large country. It’s a big commitment, with plenty of potential pitfalls, and Obama should resist it for now.

Americans have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that military interventions in developing nations are not easily resolved, and that American presence alone can be a rallying point for opposition.

Now, the Arab world has entered an extraordinary revolutionary phase, with longstanding regimes suddenly being undone. America’s long-term security will be shaped by its actions during this period. The last thing America should do is make its own intentions a dominant issue in a region where mistrust of power is so rampant.

A great strength of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt is that they were home-grown. They would have been compromised by use of American arms or will. Obama’s low-key response may have frustrated those who wish to mold the world to American contours; but it brought about a demonstrably better result: The promise of legitimate, native-born democracies. Likewise, Libyans rebelling against Khadafy’s regime will have a far greater claim to legitimacy if they can overthrow the dictator without bombing runs by American fighter jets taking off from US aircraft carriers.

But Khadafy is different from his counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia in using military force against his own people. If Khadafy’s air power, which is currently targeting rebel fighters and arms depots, were to be directed as an all-out terror weapon against the civilian population, then Obama should heed Kerry’s call for a no-fly zone. In that event, it should be a a NATO mission, preferably supported by the Arab League and the African Union. Ideally, it would also have UN Security Council authorization to blunt the inevitable claims of American interference.

After a military victory over Khadafy, rebels will be forced to build a government out of a nation of divided and sometimes hostile tribes; this will be far easier if the victory were solely the product of cooperation among them. The best result for the United States would be a stable, progressive Libyan government built by Libyans on their own. A US-imposed no-fly zone makes for complications; unless absolutely necessary to prevent a bloodbath, Obama should hold his fire.