Prepare for no-fly zone, says Kerry

Splits with Gates on plan to thwart air fire on Libyans

ASSESSING OPTIONS In an interview on “Face the Nation,” Kerry stressed that a no-fly zone should only be put in place to stop a civilian crisis. ASSESSING OPTIONS
In an interview on “Face the Nation,” Kerry stressed that a no-fly zone should only be put in place to stop a civilian crisis.
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / March 7, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Senator John Kerry yesterday urged the United States and its allies to draw up plans for a no-fly zone over Libya, to be ready to intervene if Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy commands his air force to slaughter his own civilians.

Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, quickly got some qualified support for the idea yesterday from two influential Republican senators — John McCain of Arizona and minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — even as Kerry’s position put him at odds with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Gates has said a no-fly zone is tantamount to going to war because, for the safety of US pilots, Libyan air defense installations would have to be bombed.

But in edging toward the idea that the United States should at least plan for military action, Kerry said that enforcing a no-fly zone would not necessarily require overt attacks on planes or air defense installations, which could be seen as an act of war against Libya.

In an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation’’ yesterday, Kerry said the United States and its allies could “crater the airports and the runways and leave them incapable of using them for a period of time,’’ as an effective means of grounding Khadafy’s air force. A no-fly zone over Libya would not “step over the line’’ into an unwanted military intervention into that country’s ongoing strife, said Kerry. He stressed that the plan should be done in conjunction with allies, and only to stop a civilian crisis.

“I would only consider its implementation if Khadafy himself were using [air power] as a means of terror, as a means of massacring large numbers of civilians,’’ Kerry said. “And I think it is only then that the global community would begin to say, uh-oh, we’ve got to do something, now is the time you have to do it.’’

Libya appears on the brink of civil war; rebels and forces loyal to Khadafy have been clashing in several cities in northern Libya. Khadafy is escalating his use of military force against the rebels.

Asked in the CBS interview about providing military equipment to rebels, Kerry said, “I assume that a lot of weapons are going to find their way there from one means or another over the course of the next weeks.’’ His staff said later that Kerry was commenting only about the pervasiveness of weapons in the region, and was not advocating that the United States or any nation provide arms.

A spokesman for the Obama administration could not be reached yesterday. But White House Chief of Staff William Daley, appearing yesterday on “Meet the Press,’’ backed Gates’s position that a no-fly zone would be a large and dangerous undertaking. “Lots of people throw around phrases of ‘no-fly zone’ and they talk about it as though it’s just a game, a video game or something. Some people who throw that line out have no idea what they’re talking about,’’ Daley said.

McCain said yesterday that Libya’s “somewhat antiquated’’ air defenses would not pose a great challenge to establishing a no-fly zone. Such a zone would signal to Khadafy “that the president is serious when he says we need for Khadafy to go. And also, it would be encouraging to the resistance, who are certainly outgunned from the air,’’ he said.

McConnell said a no-fly zone is “worth considering,’’ and that the United States should help the anti-Khadafy forces, though not by sending in US troops.

Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

President Obama on Thursday called for Khadafy to leave power, saying that the entire world continues to be outraged by the appalling violence against the Libyan people.

The president has not ruled out military force. “With respect to our willingness to engage militarily, what I’ve instructed the Department of Defense, as well as our State Department and all those who are involved in international affairs, to examine is a full range of options,’’ he said. “I don’t want us hamstrung. I want us to be making our decisions based on what’s going to be best for the Libyan people in consultation with the international community.

“So there are a whole range of options, military and nonmilitary, that we’re examining,’’ Obama said. “And we’ll be making these decisions based on what’s best for the Libyan people and how can we make sure that we’re minimizing the harm to innocent civilians during this process.’’

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.