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Why John Carney Is Wrong to Oppose a No-Fly Zone for Libya

Monday, 7 Mar 2011 | 4:13 PM ET
Demonstrators hold up a banner featuring Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi reading 'Kadhafi is a murderer' as they stage a protest outside the Libyan embassy in Istanbul on February 21, 2011
Mustafa Ozer | AFP | Getty Images
Demonstrators hold up a banner featuring Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi reading 'Kadhafi is a murderer' as they stage a protest outside the Libyan embassy in Istanbul on February 21, 2011

My colleagueJohn Carney is half right in his opinion piece about Libya—and where he is wrong he is wrong for the best of reasons.

Carney has taken the position that a US enforced no-fly zone in Libya should be avoided in favor of offering Qaddafi the carrot of amnesty in exchange for his immediate departure from the country.

Here is the backbone of his anti-no-fly zone argument:

"The very first step in establishing a no-fly zone would be a bombing attack on Libya. Our bombers would have to seek out and destroy Libya's air defenses. Bombing another country is called war. We'd be converting a nascent civil war in Libya into an international war lead by the United States."

In this position I believe he is correct in every particular.

Secretary of Defense Gates has warned us that a no-fly zone in Libya is not an airy political abstraction: It requires the destruction of the Libyan Air Force via direct military action.

I argued in a piece written at the beginning of the Libyan crisis that the words "Never again" apply in Africa as well as in Europe—and that such promises without decisive actions to support them are merely impotent poetry.

Col. Qaddafi's brutality against his own people has gone well beyond the routine dictatorial skulduggery associated with narcissistic autocrats. To name just a single example, in the interest of brevity, Qaddafi's use of air power against protesters is a crime against humanity so morally egregious that it demands action of the most strongest kind.

That said, there is a quite reasonable position to be taken on the opposite side of the case.

Namely, Carney argues trenchantly about the dangers to our flyers in the event a no-fly zone is implemented: "Our airmen will be in constant danger above Libya. We should not expect that they would receive much by the way of mercy from Gadaffi-a guy who has already shown a willingness to kill civilian protestors that are his own countrymen. What do we think will happen when he captures foreign warfighters who were piloting deadly jets above Libya?"

His point is not to be taken lightly. It's one thing for pundits to bloviate about the case for military action—and quite another matter to make such sacrifices personally.

On that point, I can only defer to John McCain—who supports no-fly zones—and who knows far better than I could imagine the horrors faced by airmen captured during combat by the enemy.

But—and this is perhaps the critical point—my greatest hope would be that the credible threat of a no-fly zone by the United States would be enough to persuade Col. Qaddafi to vacate the country.

This is the point on which Carney and I seem to most agree:

"Our policy should be to offer aid to the afflicted, and comfort to the forces supporting reform in Libya. Gadaffi should be convinced to leave, even if that costs us promises of amnesty, unfrozen stolen wealth and asylum."

However: Carrots work best when used in conjunction with sticks.

While the notion of total amnesty and massive expatriated wealth for a dictator like Qaddafi strikes me as morally repellent, it is a far better option than continued atrocities in Libya.

There are those who argue that allowing Qaddafi to flee Libya without prosecution—and with his wealth intact—sets exactly the wrong precedent.

While I have sympathy for that position on moral grounds I must disagree.

Sadly, there are many dictators of Qaddafi's ilk- though most commit their oppressions on a lesser scale.

The general principle is to get autocrats to leave power as quickly and bloodlessly as possible. When the resolve of the world community is united in opposing their regime, a departure along favorable terms is a price worth paying.

While "regime survival"—in the literal, biological sense—is an abstract proposition to policy wonks in Washington, it's a very real and concrete consideration to the man in power.

If you want to remove a foundering dictator, offer him away out of his predicament in the way that speaks most directly to his principal concern: Himself.

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