Juliette Kayyem

Forging new ground with no-fly zone

By Juliette Kayyem
March 11, 2011

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AFTER FOLLOWING weeks of political debate, reviewing the historical precedents from Iraq, Bosnia, and Rwanda, and watching bloodshed as a leader encourages a civil war simply to keep himself in power, I have settled on an answer as to whether the United States should intervene in Libya: I have no idea.

Call me cynical, but when Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain urge — with moral certainty — that it’s America’s duty to impose the no-fly zone over Libya that is being requested by the rebel leaders to end Colonel Moammar Khadafy’s regime, I feel like I’ve seen a version of this movie before. Their track record on predicting the consequences of military intervention, especially in Arab countries, makes me instinctively want to hide for cover in my own little no-fly zone.

The senators’ cause is aided by a growing chorus of humanitarian interventionists who view Khadafy’s slaughter of uprising citizens as the most morally persuasive situation to invoke the duty to protect. They are urging that the United States not go it alone, but get support from NATO (possible) or the United Nations (less likely) for an international effort to make useless Libya’s air force.

On the other side, in the role of former secretary of state Colin Powell in the run-up to the Iraq war, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has laid out the strongest case against any intervention, arguing that a no-fly zone would begin with an attack on Khadafy’s air defenses and likely require a prolonged military operation in much of Libya. He has tempered this assessment in the last week, but you can’t help feeling that his sarcastic reply (“yeah, exactly’’) to General David Petraeus in Afghanistan — caught on tape — that now that Afghanistan and Iraq were looking better, “you going to launch some attacks on Libya or something’’ is where his true judgment lies.

Certainty is unhelpful and ahistorical. Yes, we imposed a no-fly zone in 1999 in Kosovo, where 78 days of NATO strikes stopped Serbian strongman Sloban Milosevic from persecuting the ethnic Albanian population. And yes, we famously refused to help in Rwanda, where ethnic cleansing, and our refusal to act, still haunts us. The no-fly zone in Kosovo was imposed after years of debate, compared to the whirling speed by which decisions apparently need to be made in Libya. In both Kosovo and Rwanda, the moral impetus was ethnic cleansing, not merely the killing of civilians or, as is the case in Libya, rebel fighters. This is a civil war, and we are choosing sides.

The case study we do not have is whether a no-fly zone will aid rebel leaders in deposing a tyrannical leader in a predominantly ground combat civil war where the United States has a strong preference for who should lose, but almost no idea who the winners are. This is new territory.

We can, however, be certain of a few things. Imposition of a no-fly zone will involve us in a much more tangible way than in the Arab uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. There are many in the Arab world — including Iran — who will be grateful we took the bait. And despite cloaking ourselves in the support of the “international community’’ so as not to look too aggressive, no one will be fooled — the United States will own the no-fly zone effort and be applauded, or condemned, alone.

If we advance, we will need to make a strong case that Libya is a special situation. But should other Arab leaders turn to killing rebels or, worse, unarmed civilians, how will we justify not imposing a no-fly zone? Should we simply monitor the entire Middle East?

So, I’m very comfortable, then, that all this back and forth by US politicians over the no-fly zone hasn’t settled on a perfect answer. The benefit is that we have Khadafy guessing and the mere talk of it could turn his supporters against him.

Certainty in our assessments of military intervention in the Arab world engenders no confidence. It impresses no one. If we impose a no-fly zone, we may be jumping over a cliff. All I want is for our leadership to be honest enough to tell us that may be exactly where we are heading.

Juliette Kayyem, a guest columnist, is former homeland security adviser for Massachusetts and most recently served as assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security.