Libyan demonstrators flying the Kingdom of Libya flag, in the main square of Benghazi on 28 February 2011.

Libyan demonstrators, flying the Kingdom of Libya flag, in the main square of Benghazi on 28 February 2011. (Photograph: Tiago Petinga/EPA)

Today in Libya, civilians are being killed by a besieged and isolated dictator. Libyan warplanes have been used to attack civilians, although the vast majority of the violence has come from ground attacks. The Libyan opposition’s provisional national council, meeting in Benghazi, is debating whether they should request military support from the international community, maybe the UN or NATO, starting with a no-fly zone. The Arab League announced that it was also considering establishing a no-fly zone, perhaps with the African Union.

It is unclear what casualties the airstrikes may have caused. The anti-regime forces have some access to anti-aircraft weapons, and Qaddafi has already lost planes and pilots alike to the opposition — but it is far from clear where the military balance lies.

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.

A Libyan activist writes in The Guardian, “we welcome a no-fly zone, but the blood of Libya’s dead will be wasted if the west curses our uprising with failed intervention.” He says that his hopes for a happy ending are “marred by a fear shared by all Libyans; that of a possible western military intervention to end the crisis.” He seems to believe that a U.S. or NATO no-fly zone would mean something other than a Western military intervention.

Ironically it was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who warned that establishing a no-fly zone “begins with an attack on Libya.” It would be an act of war. And the Middle East doesn’t need another U.S. war.

What would a no-fly zone in Libya mean? A bit of history may provide some perspective.

Bombing Tripoli

The year was 1986. People had been killed, this time in a terrorist attack in Europe. The Libyan government, led by Muammar Qaddafi, was deemed responsible. The U.S. announced air strikes directed at “key military sites” in Tripoli and Benghazi. Exactly the kind of targeted air strikes that would precede a no-fly zone. But according to the BBC, the missiles hit a densely populated Tripoli suburb, Bin Ashur. At least 100 people were killed, including Qaddafi’s three-year-old daughter. Qaddafi himself was fine.

Libyans remember.

Fast-forward half a decade. The 1991 Gulf War in Iraq was over. A besieged and defeated Arab dictator was posturing, threatening force, and the victorious U.S. decided to intervene again, officially for humanitarian reasons. The U.S. and Britain established unilateral “no-fly zones” in northern and southern Iraq. (U.S. and British officials consistently lied, claiming they were enforcing “United Nations no-fly zones,” but in fact no UN resolution ever even mentioned one.) During the twelve years of the no-fly zone, hundreds were killed by U.S. and British bombs.

Iraqis remember. So do Libyans.

Assume the “attack on Libya” preceding a no-fly zone succeeds in its very specific purpose: to eliminate the anti-aircraft weapons that could threaten U.S. planes enforcing the zone. But does that mean it also eliminates all anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of the opposition, the defectors from Qaddafi’s air force? What would the consequences be of that?

And then there are the “what if” factors. What if they made a mistake? The 1986 U.S. airstrikes in Libya were supposed to be aimed at military targets — yet more than 100 people, many of them civilians, were killed; why do we assume it will be any different this time? What if a U.S. warplane was shot down and pilots or bombers were captured by Qaddafi’s military? Wouldn’t U.S. Special Forces immediately be deployed to rescue them? Then what?

And that’s just the military part. That’s just the beginning.


No-fly zones, like any other act of war, have consequences. In Libya, though it is impossible to precisely gauge public opinion, a significant majority of people appears opposed to the regime and prepared to mobilize and fight to bring it down. That is not surprising. While the Libyan revolt is playing out in vastly different ways, and with far greater bloodshed, it is part and parcel of the democratic revolutionary process rising across the Arab world and beyond. And just as in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere, there is no evidence that the Libyan population supports foreign military involvement.

To the contrary, although at least part of the anti-Qaddafi leadership is indeed calling for some kind of military intervention, there appears to be widespread public opposition to such a call. Certainly there is fear that such foreign involvement will give credibility to Qaddafi’s currently false claims that foreigners are responsible for the uprising. But beyond that, there is a powerful appeal in the recognition that the democracy movements sweeping the Middle East and North Africa are indigenous, authentic, independent mobilizations against decades-long U.S.- and Western-backed dictatorship and oppression.

There have been broadly popular calls for international assistance to the anti-Qaddafi forces, including support for a UN-imposed assets freeze and referral to the International Criminal Court for top regime officials. And despite the breathtaking hypocrisy of the U.S., which embraces the ICC as a tool against Washington’s current opponents but rejects it for war criminals among its Israeli and other allies and refuses its jurisdiction for itself, the use of the Court for this purpose is very appropriate.

But there is no popular call for military intervention. 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.”

Indeed, if the U.S. is so worried about the bombing raids against civilians, perhaps the Obama administration should take another look at Afghanistan, where nine Afghan children, ages seven to fourteen, were killed by U.S. attack helicopters in Kunar province on March 1st. If the Congress is so eager to follow the wishes of Libya’s opposition, perhaps General Gatroni’s call for the U.S. to “take care of its own people” could mean challenging another stark reality: the people of Wisconsin, facing a $1.8 billion budget deficit, will pay $1.7 billion in taxes this year just for their share of an already-existing war, the one in Afghanistan.

Global Opposition

Internationally, there is widespread public and governmental opposition in influential countries, such as India, to establishing a no-fly zone. In the United Nations, many governments are reluctant to order an act of war that would significantly escalate the military conflict underway in Libya. The Security Council resolution that passed unanimously on February 27 condemned the violence and imposed a set of targeted sanctions on the Qaddafi regime, but did not reference Article 42 of the UN Charter, the prerequisite for endorsing the use of force.

Instead, the Council relied on Article 41, which authorizes only “measures not involving the use of armed force.” Passage, let alone unanimity, would have been impossible otherwise. Russia’s ambassador specifically opposed what he called “counterproductive interventions,” and other key Council members, including veto-wielding China as well as rising powers India, South Africa, and Brazil, have all expressed various levels of caution and outright opposition to further militarizing the situation in Libya.

So far, the Obama administration and the Pentagon appear to be vacillating on support for a no-fly zone. An anonymous administration official told the New York Times“there’s a great temptation to stand up and say, ‘We’ll help you rid the country of a dictator’… But the president has been clear that what’s sweeping across the Middle East is organic to the region, and as soon as we become a military player, we’re at risk of falling into the old trap that Americans are stage-managing events for their own benefit.”

In fact that “old trap,” seizing control of international events for Washington’s own benefit, remains central to U.S. foreign policy. It’s becoming harder these days, as U.S. influence wanes. But key U.S. political forces are upping the pressure on Obama to send the troops — at least the Air Force. Those rooting for war include right-wing Republican warmongers eager to attack Obama as war-averse (despite all evidence to the contrary), as well, unfortunately, as some of the strongest anti-war voices in Congress (including Jim McDermott, Mike Honda, Keith Ellison, and others), who presumably believe that the humanitarian necessity of a no-fly zone still outweighs the dangers.

It doesn’t. Humanitarian crises simply do not shape U.S. policy. If they did, we might have heard a bit more last week when the Baghdad government — armed, financed, trained, and supported by the United States — killed 29 Iraqi civilians demonstrating against corruption. We might have seen humanitarian involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions of civilians have been killed in Africa’s longest and perhaps most brutal war. And we might have seen, if not direct U.S. intervention, at least an end to the U.S. enabling of the Israeli assault on Gaza that killed more than 900 civilians, 313 of them children.

Rather, “humanitarian” concerns become a tool of powerful circles to build popular support for what would otherwise bring massive public outrage — “really, while the costs of existing wars have already brought the U.S. economy to its knees, you want to launch another U.S. war in the Middle East??”

Whose Humanitarianism?

It’s not that there are no real humanitarian concerns; Libyan civilians are paying a huge price in challenging their dictator. But powerful U.S. interests are at stake, and few of them have anything to do with protecting Libyan civilians. Certainly oil is key; not so much about access to Libyan oil (the international oil market is pretty fungible), but about which oil companies will gain privileged positions? Will it be BP and Chevron who win the lucrative contracts to develop Libya’s enormous oil fields, or will Chinese and Russian oil companies take their place? What pipelines will a new government in Libya choose, and which countries and corporations will benefit?

And it’s not only about oil. The Libyan uprising is one of many potentially revolutionary transformations across the Arab world and in parts of Africa, where long-standing U.S.-backed dictatorships are collapsing — what kind of credibility can the U.S. expect in post-Qaddafi Libya? Washington may be betting that it can win credibility with the opposition by jumping out in front with an aggressive anti-Qaddafi “military assistance” campaign, perhaps starting with a no-fly zone. But in fact Washington risks antagonizing those opposition supporters, apparently the vast majority, determined to protect the independence of their democratic revolution.

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.

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