Democracy Won’t be
Delivered by a No-fly Zone
A popular democratic wave is washing across North Africa. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Iran and Iraq, millions of people are rejecting authoritarian regimes, demanding their rights, and asserting their democratic will. Despite decades of repressive autocratic, corrupt and dictatorial rule, and frequently in the face of brutal reprisals, people are telling their governments and the world that their desire for self-government, democracy, sovereignty, peace and an end to poverty will no longer be denied.
This has put the U.S. government in an awkward position, for all too often it has been our government that has provided their rulers with the arms, planes, tear gas, riot gear and surveillance equipment that have been used to sustain their authoritarian rule. The utter hypocrisy of U.S. policy is being exposed.
So far the Obama administration has approached this issue with appropriate caution. But Phyllis Bennis at the Institute for Policy Studies warns,
Powerful U.S. voices — including neo-conservative warmongers and liberal interventionists in and out of the administration, as well as important anti-war forces in and out of Congress — are calling on the Obama administration to establish a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilians.
There is a natural desire on the part of social justice advocates to do whatever can be done to prevent needless bloodshed and to defend democratic forces against the substantially greater military forces loyal to Qaddafi. But the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya would put the U.S. on a road it has traveled before. That road led to a twelve year military enforced embargo followed by an eight year long war in Iraq that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and nearly 4500 U.S. troops, while wounding hundreds of thousands of others and displacing more than four million Iraqis.
In Tunisia and Egypt repressive regimes yielded ultimately to the overwhelming will of the people. In both countries, the labor movement played a central role in transforming a popular uprising into a revolution that succeeded in forcing dictators to yield power without protracted violent strife. But that has not been the case in Libya, where the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi has clung tenaciously to power and responded with savage ferocity, plunging the nation into civil war.
Elements of the regime, including importantly units and officers of the armed forces, have abandoned Qaddafi to side with the people. But the popular resistance is poorly organized, with no central command or unified leadership, and, importantly, with no tanks, artillery or defence against the Libyan air force.
Some elements of the popular resistance have called for the US and NATO powers to establish a no-fly zone. This call has been echoed by others in the West, including some governments. Libyans are unanimous, however, is clearly rejecting the introduction of any foreign military forces into their country.
Phyllis Bennis reports that human rights lawyer and opposition spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga was crystal clear: “We are against any foreign intervention... This revolution will be completed by our people.” And Libyan General Ahmad Gatroni, who defected to lead the opposition forces, urged the U.S. to “take care of its own people, we can look after ourselves.”
It is worth recalling that the U.S. also armed and equipped Saddam Hussein’s armed forces, seeking to play Iraq off against Iran, plunging those two countries into a mutually ruinous eight year war that claimed more than a half million lives. It was also the U.S. that armed the mujahedeen guerrillas of Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation. Elements of those guerrilla forces were later reconstituted as Al Qaeda and the Taliban. And we all know where that led!
There is no question that the U.S. has the military means to establish and enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, but as Secretary of Defense Gates has noted, a pre-condition to any successful no-fly zone would require a military assault on Libya’s air defenses, and that would constitute an act of war under international law. It would also result in an untold number of civilian deaths, not to mention the U.S. casualties that would inevitably occur. And it would interject the U.S into the middle of a conflict in yet another Arab nation, provoking even greater anger across the region and around the world.
It is also entirely possible that even with a no-fly zone, the well equipped Libyan Army might prevail with artillery, tanks and other heavy weapons against the lightly armed, poorly organized and largely untrained popular resistance forces. Then the U.S. would be faced with the need to commit ground forces to stave off a defeat of the anti-Qaddafi revolution.
General Wesley Clark (ret.) has learned a thing or two about military interventions. In a lengthy article in the Washington Post (March 12), he recounted the record of U.S. military interventions since the Vietnam War:
A no-fly zone in Libya may seem straightforward at first, but if Gaddafi continues to advance, the time will come for airstrikes, extended bombing and ground troops - a stretch for an already overcommitted force. . . .
Whatever resources we dedicate for a no-fly zone would probably be too little, too late. We would once again be committing our military to force regime change in a Muslim land, even though we can't quite bring ourselves to say it. So let's recognize that the basic requirements for successful intervention simply don't exist, at least not yet: We don't have a clearly stated objective, legal authority, committed international support or adequate on-the-scene military capabilities, and Libya's politics hardly foreshadow a clear outcome.
We should have learned these lessons from our long history of intervention. We don't need Libya to offer us a refresher course in past mistakes.
Phyllis Bennis concludes her own essay with this advice:
The future of Libya and much of the success of the democratic revolutions now underway across the region, stand in the balance. If the Obama administration, the Pentagon, war profiteers and the rest of the U.S. policymaking establishment continue to define U.S. “national interests” as continuing U.S. domination of oil-rich and strategically-located countries and regions, Washington faces a likely future of isolation, antagonism, rising terrorism and hatred.
The democratic revolutionary processes sweeping North Africa and the Middle East have already transformed that long-stalemated region. The peoples of the region are looking for less, not greater militarization of their countries. It is time for U.S. policy to recognize that reality. Saying no to a no-fly zone in Libya will be the best thing the Obama administration can do to begin the process of crafting a new, demilitarized 21st century policy for the U.S. in the newly democratizing Middle East.
Within the social justice movements, it is natural for people to want to come to the aid of a beleaguered people seeking to overthrow an oppressive dictatorship. But good impulses alone are not a basis for making sound policy.
The greatest help we can provide to democratic forces around the world is to end the U.S. role as global cop, global bully and arms merchant to every autocrat, despot, tyrant and authoritarian regime that is willing to do our government’s bidding.
The resources our government now squanders playing super-power to the world should be invested in creating jobs, restoring the social safety net, and meeting the myriad needs of people here and around the world.