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With Libya, U.S. and Europe have a Buy-In

“Let’s just call a spade a spade…A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses.” – Robert Gates

The Arab League request for a no-fly zone over Libya offers the U.S. and Europe a buy in. Because an institution that represents twenty-two Arab states has requested direct Western military intervention, this diminishes the chances that if intervention does not work the U.S. and Europe will face admonishment from the Arab world. Shortly after the request was made, the White House released the following statement, “[the request] strengthens the international pressure on Qaddafi and support for the Libyan people.”

The Arab League’s secretary general, Amr Moussa explained the need for a no-fly zone to the New York Times, “Our one goal is to protect the civilian population in Libya after what has been reported of attacks and casualties in a very bloody situation.”

The request by the Arab League allows the U.S. and Europe to press Russia and China for a UN Security Council resolution. China and Russia have previously opposed intervention but have hinted that if the Arab League comes out in support they would be less inclined to oppose a no-fly zone. The Russian and Chinese concerns center around what would constitute the need for a no-fly zone. Importantly, U.S. and European military operations against Qaddafi would have the direct and tacit support from the Arab League.

This development is significant and it demonstrates that the Arab League considers the heavy-handed tactics deployed by Qaddafi to have crossed a threshold. The request also illustrates that many Arab states consider Libya to be a problematic state and the region, in their estimate, would be better off without Qaddafi. Qaddafi has had strained relations with some Arab League members.

Qaddafi denounced Saudi’s King Abdullah as a “British product and American ally,” and his support for terrorist groups in the 1980s put several Arab states in an uncomfortable position. The request for a no-fly zone by Arab states puts renewed pressure on the international community to act before Qaddafi is able to reassert complete control over Libya. Qaddafi’s forces, led in some cases by his son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, have recaptured key towns and Qaddafi has demonstrated a lack of clemency for anti-government forces including civilians.

Lack of U.S. action is explained by a desire to avoid shouldering a significant portion of the military burden. From the beginning of the Libyan uprising until now the U.S. has been willing to let the Europeans take the lead in working out the details of a no-fly zone. The U.S. has imposed unilateral economic sanctions against Qaddafi’s government including freezing $30 billion of his assets. Essentially, the U.S. has allowed France and the UK to explore the possibility of a no-fly zone. Although the Obama administration has called on Qaddafi to step down, President Obama has refrained from a direct endorsement of a no-fly zone. Instead, the president has said that it is up to the UN Security Council and the Arab League to agree to one.

During the debate over a no-fly zone international law has guided the process. Many observers were pressuring NATO to institute one earlier but it was difficult to do so unless the UN Security Council approved a resolution. With the passage of a UN resolution the international community could begin the process of instituting this measure. Currently, there are significant military resources stationed in the region. Besides military bases in Italy, the U.S. repositioned two warships off the Libyan coast and the USS Enterprise, currently in the Red Sea, has air capacities to reach Libya in a short period of time.

The U.S. is keenly aware that if it had acted before now military actions would have been viewed through the prism of the Iraq War and U.S. policies in the region. Because of the Arab League’s request, the U.S., France and the UK would be acting on behalf of Arab states. Western military intervention in Libya carries significant ramifications and the U.S. and Europe are insuring that a no-fly zone is properly considered and not rushed.

Approved or not, a no-fly zone would be heavily dependent on the U.S. military. Out of the NATO member states, the U.S. is virtually the only state with the military capabilities to carry one out effectively. An American official commented that despite this, the Arab League is expected to participate on some level in the enforcement of a no-fly zone, “That doesn’t mean they have to fly airplanes…but there is much they can do, from providing airfields to gas and maintenance.” The administration has been perceived as “dithering” while countless civilians have been killed by Qaddafi’s forces. While this perception is unwarranted, multilateral coalition building takes a significant amount of time to coordinate. Secretary of State Clinton told a Congressional hearing, “I’m one of those who believe absent international cooperation the U.S. stepping into this could have unforeseen consequences.”

Clinton is in Paris meeting with G8 foreign ministers to discuss available options in Libya. Last week Clinton said of her scheduled meetings, “I intend to convey strong support of the Obama Administration and the American people that we wish to be a partner in the important work that lies ahead, as they embark on a transition to a genuine democracy.” Following her meetings in Europe she is scheduled to fly to Tunisia and Egypt for follow up meetings with regional leaders including those leading the uprising against Qaddafi. Additionally, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, is expected to be meeting with the Arab League in Cairo regarding military options.

Whether or not a no-fly zone is approved it will have to comprehensive. Conversely, a no-fly zone could prove to be futile. Qaddafi is utilizing more of his ground forces than air assets against the anti-government rebels. Qaddafi is also relying on his artillery to battle the rebels and a no-fly zone, if approved, would typically not involve ground targets.

As the debate moves forward a no-fly zone will not prove to be a silver bullet. It took over two months for the no-fly zone over Serbia to prove effective and the no-fly zone over Iraq lasted for years. Despite the challenges of a no-fly zone, Abdel Hafeez Goga of the Transitional National Council, the provisional government based in Benghazi, suggested, “We are capable of controlling all of Libya, but only after the no-fly zone is imposed…We are arming up and we will confront force with force. We are in the process of negotiating weapons deals and on the verge of getting new weapons.”

Because Qaddafi is able to utilize his air power, a no-fly zone would, in all likelihood, prove key to establishing an equitable playing field for the rebels. While it is not the West’s role to determine the winner, it is the role of the international community to insure that Qaddafi does not use his air advantage to inflict revenge killings on civilians. The Arab League has established that a no-fly zone is not purely a Western invention. In fact, the buy in provided by the Arab League affords the West an opportunity to build partnerships with many states in the Arab world.