The 22-nation Arab League has called for a no-fly zone over Libya. So have Britain and France. They say Libya will become a humanitarian calamity if Col. Muammar Gaddafi isn’t stopped now.
They say his victory will mean the strategic collapse of all that could be good in the Mideast. But these strategic moralists fail to note one insidious and self-damning fact: They would have no trouble doing the job all by themselves.
They possess hundreds upon hundreds of frontline jet fighters and the necessary air bases—in sum, full air superiority over Libya.
So, if things were so terrible in Libya weeks ago, why didn’t they impose the no-fly zone? Why don’t they do it now? Why are they all insisting that before any action can be taken it must first be approved by the U.N. Security Council? Elementary, my dear Watson, as Sherlock Holmes used to say to his rather slow companion.
The answer is plain: they know very well that the U.N. Security Council won’t approve the action. Which, in turn, means that they have no real desire or intent to secure the skies over Libya and are using the U.N. as an excuse. Everyone knows full well that China and Russia are likely to veto any military move over or against Libya, or any other country, for that matter. Beijing and Moscow just don’t like all this “saving the people” talk, for fear that one day it might be used against them.
For argument’s sake, let’s pretend that Beijing and Moscow suffer a bout of hallucinatory humanitarianism or are mightily impressed by the Arab League’s endorsement of the no-fly zone, and decide not to block it. Guess who draws the short straw and would be expected to perform the no-flying gig? Right again, Dr. Watson: the United States of America.
There’s the ultimate punch line: the United States of America will do it. Boy, the world really has our number. The world knows that we’ll buy into one cosmic argument or another. Supporters of the no-fly zone argue that, if it isn’t too late, the measure will prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths at Gaddafi’s hands. They are right that those deaths would be horrible, but the finger-waving nations could prevent that themselves right now. Then there’s the strategic argument: if Washington doesn’t intervene fast, Iran will conquer first the Mideast, then the world (not including China). But the rebels in Libya and elsewhere could only despise a Tehran that slaughtered its own rebels less than two years ago.
There’s also the democracy argument: if Americans don’t help the Libyan “freedom fighters,” then all is lost for democracy in Arab lands. So, does that mean because the Libyan rebels lost, that the Bahraini people will cease their pursuit of parliamentary democracy? Not a chance. Will Egyptian democrats abandon their cause whatever happens in Libya? Not a chance.
The strategic moralists also warn that if Gaddafi gets away with murder, Arab autocrats will follow suit. Good scare tactic, fellas. But not one of these autocrats is anywhere near as bad as Gaddafi. They will use force, as the Saudis are doing in Bahrain, to protect their interests and their power, whatever Gaddafi’s fate. The arguments of the strategic moralists are wanting.
Doubt not that those pushing for a U.N./U.S. no-fly zone can enforce that goal themselves. Libya has less than 200 usable jet fighters of old vintage, flown by pilots who get less than 90 hours practice time yearly. Egypt has first-class F-16s that could pulverize any Libyan opposition. Saudi air power is even more formidable. That is to say nothing of the hundreds of top-grade fighters that London and Paris could deploy to bases in Egypt, Tunisia, or Italy.
There would be no contest. Those arguing for a no-fly zone don’t need a U.S. aircraft carrier. If the stakes are anywhere near as great as activists claim, they don’t need a U.N. Security Council resolution either. Many is the nation that resorted to force without such international blessing. The hypocrisy here is monumental, even by traditional foreign-policy standards of baloney.
President Obama and his team have a herculean task on their hands, dealing with Libya as well as the far more vital rumblings throughout the region. Quite sensibly, they’re trying to manoeuvre Libya’s neighbours to assume their rightful and principal responsibilities. The Arabs and the Europeans live there, and if they truly see hell coming, they should act, and they can act. If they do, President Obama will give them proper humanitarian aid and other backup.
The attacks on Obama are grossly unfair—this time. He deserves help on Libya. Instead of blaming him, his critics should line up and with one voice shout this: “Arabs and Europeans, for once, stand up and take the responsibility that is properly yours. Fly your planes to save the Libyan rebels now.”
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
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