Bombs over Tripoli

A no-fly zone over Libya is not a good idea. Look what happened in Iraq.

Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is right to be warning that a no-fly zone over Libya is a major and difficult undertaking. It could also turn into the first step on a path toward a full-scale American invasion of the North African country. Indeed, we should not go down the path of military intervention unless we are prepared to go all the way, there should be no halfway house in war.

We did employ two no-fly zones in Iraq between 1991 and 2003 that are useful case studies for the Libya problem. Gates has said that the first move in creating a no-fly zone needs to be a massive air attack to destroy the Libyan air force and air defenses. That is what we did in Iraq in 1991. Operation Desert Storm was the crucial enabler that allowed the northern and southern no-fly zones to operate over the country for the next decade. Even after Desert Storm, however, we periodically had to stage large attacks on the Iraqi air defense systems to keep them off balance and weak. If you don’t begin with a mass attack to eliminate Libyan capabilities you are asking your pilots to fly in harm's way and risk being shot down. That is irresponsible.

But even if the Libyan air force and air defenses are defanged, the no-fly zone is not a guarantor that Libyan ground forces will stop attacking the opposition and creating humanitarian disasters. Again, Iraq is a good historical reminder of the reality on the ground of no-fly zones. The southern no-fly zone never effectively protected the Shia population in the south from Saddam, he just stopped using air power to kill them and relied on tanks, artillery and execution squads. In the north, the no-fly zone was powerless to stop the Iraqi army’s 1996 takeover of the largest Kurdish city, Irbil, which was betrayed to Saddam by one of the warring Kurdish parties, led by Masoud Barzani, that we now support in Iraq, and the subsequent killing of hundreds of other Kurds and oppositionists. 

The Iraq case also illustrates the crucial role of the host countries which serve as the bases for a no-fly zone. Turkey agreed to the northern no-fly zone only reluctantly as a means to get rid of a half million Kurdish refugees. Turkey imposed severe constraints on what the northern no-fly zone could do, basically prohibiting air-to-ground bombing. Thus when Saddam broke the rules and invaded the north to rape Irbil, the no-fly zone was an empty threat.

Libya is the seventeenth-largest country in the world. Most of it is a desert, but there are thirteen air bases across the country which would need to be neutralized. Sustained flight operations would need a base or bases nearby. If it is a NATO mission that would mean involving Italy, Libya’s former colonial master, which would make the operation politically explosive with Libyans and force us to rely on Prime Minister Berlusconi’s support for its sustainability.

And if the no-fly zone does not stop Qaddafi’s rampage against his own people we would have to use our airpower alone, send in the Marines or stand by helplessly while flying overhead. So if we decide to get involved we should have no doubts that pottery rules apply. If we break it, we own it. Of course, we will also have to pay for it. At a time when the American people seem to want their government to do less and spend less, another war (on the top of the two we already have) is not consistent with fiscal discipline. Maybe the Libyans will pay us back after we help them take Tripoli. Maybe not. Maybes are not cash in the bank.

President Obama may in the end decide he has no choice but to intervene. But no one should have any illusions that this will be cheap and easy. In Iraq, the no-fly zones lasted for over a decade, we flew over 265,000 sorties in the southern zone and 120,000 in the north, for an average of 34,000 sorties per year. They kept Saddam from threatening his neighbors Turkey and Kuwait, but they did not get rid of him—they put our pilots in harms way every day and saved few Iraqis.