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The Looming Disaster of a Libya War

A Libyan anti-government protester holds his old national flag in front of a wall covered with graffiti against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi in the eastern city of Tobruk.
- | AFP | Getty Images
A Libyan anti-government protester holds his old national flag in front of a wall covered with graffiti against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi in the eastern city of Tobruk.

Establishing a no-fly zone over Libya is likely to be far messier and less effective than advocates like Senators John McCain and John Kerry are forecasting.

Stratfor’s George Friedman has the best analysis so far of the perils of a “no-fly” policy. Let me run through his important points.

We’ll probably have to kill a lot of civilians. In order to make the skies over Libya safe for our air force to patrol, we’ll have to take out Libya’s air defenses. Many of these are likely located in residential areas, perhaps near schools or hospitals.

“Previous regimes, hoping to garner international support, have deliberately placed their systems near such facilities to force what the international media would consider an atrocity,” Friedman writes. “Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi does not seem like someone who would hesitate to cause civilian casualties for political advantage.”

The No-Fly Zone Won’t Stop Atrocities From Occurring. Most of the killing of civilians in Libya is being accomplished by ground forces loyal to Gadaffi. His troops are better equipped and better trained than the rebels. Taking away Gadaffi’s ability to perform air-strikes won’t make much of a difference in terms of the military balance in Libya. There would still be a real possibility—perhaps even a probability—that Gadaffi could win or at least fight a protracted civil war.

Remember, we had a no-fly zone over Iraq for 12 years. It didn’t change Saddam Hussein’s policies at all.

We’ll Probably Get Dragged Into A Ground War. The logic behind the no-fly zone—stopping atrocities, aiding the rebels, effecting regime change—will likely pull us into a ground war once the no-fly zone’s limited effectiveness becomes apparent.

Friedman explains that—basically—what awaits us in Libya is Iraq all over again.

This would require a substantial force — and it should be remembered from Iraq that it would require a substantial occupation force to stabilize and build a new regime to govern Libya. Unlike in Egypt, Gadhafi is the regime, and sectarian elements that have been kept in check under his regime already are coming to the fore. The ability of the country to provide and administer basic government functions is also unknown. And it must also be borne in mind that Gadhafi clearly has substantial support as well as opposition. His supporters will not go without a fight and could choose to wage some form of post-invasion resistance, as in Iraq. Thus, while the initial costs in terms of casualties might be low, the long-term costs might be much higher.

It’s Going To Be Another Forever War. After we topple Gadaffi, what next? Libya lacks the basic elements of civil society necessary for self-government outside of a dictatorship. We’re likely to find ourselves engaged in “nation building” there for a prolonged period. Meanwhile, previously concealed social fissures are likely to erupt as various groups vie for power and resist US plans. Again: think Iraq.

World Opinion Will Turn Against Us. We would probably have plenty of allies supporting an initial strike against Gadaffi. But that won’t last.

It should also be remembered that the same international community that condemned Saddam Hussein as a brutal dictator quite easily turned to condemn the United States both for deposing him and for the steps its military took in trying to deal with the subsequent insurgency. It is not difficult to imagine a situation where there is extended Libyan resistance to the occupying force followed by international condemnation of the counterinsurgency effort.

None of these outcomes is certain. But they are far more likely than the neat, quick surgical strike that is dancing in the heads of the Beltway hawks.

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