Friday, March 18, 2011

Why Progressives Should Cautiously Support The Libyan No-Fly Zone

Should progressives and leftists really support military strikes by the most powerful forces in the world against yet another Muslim country? I think this position stinks, but it stinks much less than the alternative.

The alternative is that we continue to use words and money to support the rebels and undermine Gaddafi. Maybe in the long term that would help the Libyans overthrow Gaddafi and begin a democratic transition. But in the short term it would mean Gaddafi crushes this uprising with air, land, and sea power. It would mean a siege and heavy bombardment of the second largest city in Libya. It would mean mass executions in the cities that supported the revolution (which is most of them). Are we willing to watch all that happen so that we can take a principled stand for pacifism or non-intervention? Not me.

American progressives have cheered on the protests and uprisings in the Middle East since they began in Tunisia in January. We have rallied in solidarity. We have linked our own struggles for justice to those in the Middle East. We have pressured our government to ditch its puppet dictators in the region and side with the people. We have encouraged these uprisings in many ways. In Libya the uprising has been met with brutal and overwhelming military force by a dictator who is allied with Western governments and oil companies. We cannot now just look the other way while the dictator crushes the uprising and slaughters its people.

We must support a no-fly zone and the air strikes that go with it. Our attention now should shift toward preventing "mission creep" and unnecessary escalation. We can't allow the US government or anybody else to turn this into a war for foreign domination of Libya. For some in the West, it is probably already about extending their own power. A number of peace activists and intellectuals are already making the case that the US rarely if ever intervenes militarily in foreign countries for purely humanitarian reasons. Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies argues that the US government is more interested in being favorably positioned in the region and with a new Libyan government than in preventing atrocities. Yes, that's true. All of the usual arguments from the left against war and intervention are true. But they are not reasons to oppose a no-fly zone in Libya. They are reasons why the international left must keep up the pressure on governments once the no-fly zone and air strikes begin.

How We Got Here...

Over the last week there's been a dramatic shift in the international community's position on the fighting in Libya. At first, France and Britain were the only countries making much noise in support of a no-fly zone over Libya. The US was dragging its feet. Then, the 22-member Arab League voted unanimously to call for a no-fly zone. Meanwhile, Gaddafi's forces were rolling through Ajdabiya, the last major town before they reached Benghazi--the capital of the anti-Gaddafi uprising. Soon the talk of a no-fly zone would be a moot point, because the rebels would control no territory of significance.

And then suddenly the United States changed its position yesterday and threw its weight behind the push in the UN for military action. On Thursday the UN Security Council voted to authorize "all necessary measures" short of ground invasion to protect Libyan civilians. At any time in the next few days, US, European, and Arab nation air strikes are likely to begin against Gaddafi's heavy artillery, tanks, and air power. Although it would have been nice to have seen this move a week ago, before the regime forces had driven so far east, this does seem to me like remarkably fast maneuvering by the UN, all things considered.

And Where We Should Go

So there's a strong mandate from the world for the use of force. But what should that use of force look like? The first goal should be to stop a government assault on Benghazi. That means defending the desert road between Ajdabiya and Benghazi. The second goal should be to dismantle Gaddafi's ability to make war on other cities. That means preventing his armor and artillery from simply rolling back into Ajdabiya or heading back further west to crush remnants of the uprising in other cities.

What do you think? What's the "least bad" option?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Yes, A Libyan No-Fly Zone Would Be Easy

In Libya, the United States seems content for now to watch Gaddafi brutally reassert control. The regime is using its superior organization and firepower to drive the revolutionaries further and further to the east.

NATO and the UN have, to varying degrees, discussed the idea of enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Gaddafi from bombing the rebel strongholds in the east. Although, I think it's a general rule that when the US government proposes military action, its stated aims are almost never its true aims, a no-fly zone deserves consideration. We are watching a brutal dictator crush a revolution, bombing civilians with Russian and French-built military aircraft. A revolutionary army to oust Gaddafi cannot move across wide open desert roads toward Tripoli under an all-out military assault.

And keep in mind, the rebel-controlled National Council, which France was the first to recognize as the legitimate government of Libya, has asked for a no-fly zone. If the case for humanitarian intervention is ever valid, why not here? Why should the international community simply stand back and watch?

Defense Secretary Gates has been going around making the case that enforcing a no-fly zone would not be easy. He's wrong. It would be easy. Crater Gaddafi's airfields. The west could prevent military planes from even taking off in Libya, let alone shoot them down once they're flying. We've also heard explanations of how hard it would be to maintain a no-fly zone once in effect. That's beside the point. Who says a no-fly zone has to be 100 percent enforceable from the moment it's declared? Announce it, enforce it when and where you can, and set up the logistics to make it more effective as quickly as possible.

I do not understand the slow motion we are seeing from the administration. France and Britain are calling for a no-fly zone, and Italy has offered use of its bases. But the US drags its feet. Is this just diplomatic positioning? Does Obama want it to look like we were dragged in by the international community rather than leading the push?

And then there's this:

"The regime will prevail," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said darkly at a Senate hearing on Friday. What?! I must not have gotten the memo that it was time to write off the Libyan opposition. Once again, I do not understand what the Obama administration is doing here. The US should continue discussing a no-fly zone, but the focus on the difficulty of such an operation seems overblown and dishonest.

Of course, as always, the American people should be suspicious of a push by the political elite for any military action. But we should also be vigilant that the US government is ready to sell out a people's movement to keep a predictable, western-friendly dictator in power.

(And yes, Gaddafi has been a friend of the US, Britain, and Italy since 2003.)