Wednesday, March 9, 2011

5 reasons to oppose "no-fly zones" in Libya

There's a growing chorus demanding "no-fly zones" in Libya under the pretext of stopping Libyan dictator from killing civilians. While some are motivated by humanitarian concern or desperation, the actual practice of enforcing a "no-fly zone" would create further disaster while undermining the Libyan people's own capacity to shape their future. Here are 5 reasons to oppose "no-fly zones".

1. "No-fly zones" would kill Libyans
     According to the head of US Central Command, General James Mattis, "You would have to remove the air defense capability in order to establish the no-fly zone so it -- no illusions here, it would be a military operation. It wouldn't simply be telling people not to fly airplanes." The intelligence film Stratfor goes into more details about what a "no fly zone" would actually entail:
“It has been pointed out that a no-fly zone is not an antiseptic act. In order to protect the aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone, one must begin by suppressing enemy air defenses…Therefore a no-fly zone would begin with airstrikes on known air defense sites. But it would likely continue with sustained patrols by SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) aircraft armed with anti-radiation missiles poised to rapidly confront any subsequent threat that pops up. Keeping those aircraft on station for an extended period of time would be necessary, along with an unknown number of strikes. It is uncertain where the radars and missiles are located, and those airstrikes would not be without error. When search radars and especially targeting radars are turned on, the response must be instantaneous, while the radar is radiating (and therefore vulnerable) and before it can engage. That means there will be no opportunity to determine whether the sites are located in residential areas or close to public facilities such as schools or hospitals…Indeed, attacks on air defenses could cause substantial casualties, turning a humanitarian action into one of considerable consequence in both humanitarian and political terms."
2. "No-fly zones" would strengthen Gaddafi
     The threat of foreign intervention is allowing Gaddafi to portray himself as an anti-colonial defender of Libya. While he continues to kill Libyans in practice, his rhetoric has shifted from attacking the resistance to attacking the West. As he stated recently,
"If they take such a decision [of imposing a "no-fly zone"] it will be useful for Libya, because the Libyan people will see the truth, that what they want is to take control of Libya and to steal their oil. They want to take your petrol. This is what America, this is what the French, those colonialists, want. The Libyan people will take up arms against them."
This is of course pure hypocrisy from a tyrant who until two weeks ago was the darling of the West and who has sold the immense wealth of Libya to Western corporations. But Gaddafi is outnumbered and guns alone are not enough to defeat the resistance. He is desperate for an ideological assault on the revolution, and Western intervention gives him the perfect wedge to drive into the resistance in order to break its unity.

3. "No-fly zones" would undermine the Libyan revolution
     Foreign intervention, ostensibly to prevent civil war, would in fact raise the threat of civil war by dividing Libyans on their attitudes to outside interference instead of uniting them in isolating and overthrowing Gaddafi's regime. The revolution has caused a split in the military, including pilots who deserted to Malta rather than bomb civilians. Generalizing this process--including international solidarity like the petition calling on the Maltese government to grant asylum to Libyan pilots--would create a true "no-fly zone".
     Instead of a Libyan "no-fly zone" from below, the West is threatening a "US-fly zone" from above, which would undermine the confidence of pilots to resist and make them more likely to stay loyal to Gaddafi's call to defend Libya. The so-called "no-fly zone" would therefore undermine Libyans' own capacity to take over Gaddafi's army, while giving control of the country to his former supporters. Gaddafi and the West both want to crush the Libyan revolution, for slightly different reasons, and "no-fly zones" provide them both with a tool to do so.

4. "No-fly zones" would provide a cover for Western imperialism.
     For decades the West has armed dictators across North Africa and the Middle East in order to secure control over the region's vast oil supply. But in two short months a revolutionary wave has already toppled Western-backed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, while protests are building in Libya, Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The West is desperate to stop this revolutionary process that threatens its control of the region, to whitewash its history in the region by presenting itself as a humanitarian, and to regain control.
     There is also a new scramble for Africa, with the US trying to further militarize the continent with a command station in Africa, AFRICOM. "No-fly zones" would justify this imperial control of the region, and Libya is quite consciously being used as a first test case.
     But the West is already bogged down in quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic crisis has heightened inter-imperial competition, so there is a debate amongst elites on how to proceed. The right-wing of the US establishment was first out of the gate in calling for intervention, with none other than Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz leading the charge. The US hardly gets any oil from Libya so intervention would give it greater access to the oil of its competitors while intimidating resistance movements in the region. But others in the administration are more cautious, realizing the exhorbitant costs of current occupations and the impact another Western intervention could have on what little stability remains in the region. In Europe the same splits that emerged during the Iraq War are once again evident, with Britain eagerly pressing for war (and already sending its own special forces, who were captured by the resistance), while Germany is hesitant and Russia opposed. Italy is one of the top importers of Libyan oil--and Berlusconi a close friend of Gaddafi--and was initially opposed, but as oil production is getting shut down anyways it would go along. China is competing with the US over African oil so it is also opposed, so without UN Security Council approval any intervention will be NATO (especially Britain and US) driven.
     All this inter-imperialist rivalry goes to show that those leaders who are calling for, and would enfrorce, a "no-fly zone" are purely motivated by profit and their desire to access Libyan oil.

5. "No-fly zones" provide a cover for other Western wars
     The other context is is the increasing opposition to the occupations of Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Where were calls for "no-fly zones" when Israel bombed Lebanon in 2006 or Gaza in 2008-2009? Where are calls for "no-fly zones" when NATO bombs civilians in Afghanistan, US drones kill civilians in Pakistan, or US Apache helicopters kill Iraqis? The US and Britain had "no-fly zones" in Iraq, which did nothing against Saddam Hussein but was part of a sanctions regime that killed a million people, and a prelude to war that killed another million people. "No-fly zones" are an act of war, and distract from other wars.
     As growing numbers of people oppose these occupations--including American and British war resisters--the West is desperate to take advantage of crises to distract from its past and current crimes and look out for its future profit. When the Haitian earthquake hit in 2010, Canada militarized aid to the country to further its control, and used the humanitarian cover to hide its history of intervention (including its part in the 2004 coup against Haiti's democratically elected Prime Minster Aristide) and to build its humanitarian case for continuing the occupation of Afghanistan. Intervention in Libya would serve a similar role, masking the West's history in Libya, giving it further control over its resources, and providing a humanitarian cover for other disastrous interventions. At the same time "no-fly zones" undermine the capacity of Libyans to shape their own future. As the Canadian Peace Alliance states:
"The people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have done more to bring peace and democracy to their countries than years of US-led military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The west needs to learn the lessons from those failed invasions and not compound the crisis in Libya."


  1. Overall they're good points, in part. Gaddafi's air defences are antiquated. We can thank the UN embargoes for that. Like his armour, the stuff tends to be 60s vintage. Same goes for his combat aircraft.

    I agree the West has a great many political obstacles in the way of a no-fly zone but who says the West must do it? Egypt has a force of 240 F-16s that would be perfect for the job. Egypt borders Libya and could readily support the revolt with modern armour, M-1A1s, that showed in Desert Storm their ability to eat the same vintage Soviet stuff Gaddafi is fielding.

    Take out his runways. Take out his air defences. Destroy his combat aircraft in their shelters. Neutralize his armour and artillery. All in a day's work for Egypt's armed forces.

  2. You mean the same Egyptian armed forces that are now cracking down on demonstrators? The Egyptian revolution showed that people can liberate themselves without intervention (or rather, in spite of the intervention that armed dictators in the first place), but also that the people and the army are not one, and that the high command have their own interests at stake.

    Because of the disastrous effects of Western intervention that the revolts are exposing and challenging, the West is eager to give attacks on the Libyan revolution an international veneer, and getting Egypt (whose military the West has heavily financed) to do its dirty work wouldn't be any better.

    Mentioning Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War is instructive. As the US assistant secretary of defense Lawrence Koth said at the time, "if Kuwait grew carrots we wouldn't give a damn". The same goes for Libya, whose oil is the only reason the West is talking about intervention.

    We're in an exciting period where people who have suffered under decades of Western-backed dictatorship are beginning to free themselves. If we actually support this process we need to recognize the dangers of military intervention, which is specifically designed to drive a wedge into the Libyan revolution and international solidarity, and which is already starting to do so.

    It is therefore urgent that we oppose any military intervention in Libya, so I'll reiterate my points: the Libyan people, like Tunisians and Egyptians, have the capacity to liberate themselves, but military intervention--no matter who does it--will kill Libyans, strengthen Gaddafi, undermine the revolution, provide a cover for Western imperialism, and mask current wars. Why on earth would we want to support this?

  3. While I agree with these points, it can't be ignored that some Libyans do want foreign intervention, because it seems at this point that they will be defeated without outside help. I saw footage of a protest with signs saying (in English) "libyans want no-fly zone". Obviously we should view this with caution since the signs were designed for us to read, so we must ask who is propagating this image. Nonetheless, there is some support for it and it's not clear whether these are "just people" or if they are people working at the behest of revolutionary organizations supported by the U.S.
    While I don't know the exact picture on the ground, it seems like it is truly a people's revolution in many places, with mostly civilians fighting and few soldiers who have defected (please correct me if I'm wrong). Therefore their chances of winning are low without trained soldiers and equipment.
    I still believe that there should be no intervention without U.N. authorization.

  4. Yes, sections of the Libyan resistance and their supporters are calling for "no-fly zones", as are Western states eager for their oil. The problem is that "no-fly zones" would be enforced by the latter group, whose interests run counter to the Libyan revolution. With each report of a Gaddafi assault it is completely understandable why people would be calling for outside help, but "no-fly zones" are a poisoned chalice. Sections of the Iraqi population opposed to Saddam Hussein also called on Western intervention, and look how that turned out.

    There is now a new model of "regime change" across the region sparked by Tunisia and Egypt, which build from below and split the military. Why not encourage Libyan war resisters by granting them refuge? Because Western states are busy persecuting their own war resisters. So instead they're sitting back and dangling one option as a panacea: military strikes that give them control over Libyan territory. This is dangerous salvation.

    Only movements from below across the region can provide liberation, not planes from above.

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