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War Machine Watch: Cakewalk Talk Runs Rampant

Protests in Libya
CNBC
Protests in Libya

Pressure is building for the US to take action in Libya.

The Arab League formally proposed that the UN authorize the creation of a no-fly zone. France and Britain have drafted a resolution authorizing the no fly zone. The matter is being debated among UN Security Council members. France and Britain are trying to forge an agreement on a no-fly zone among G-8 members at a meeting in Paris. Russia has softened its stance—saying it wants more information on the Arab League proposal.

You’ll notice that one group absent from all this talk about the US imposing a no-fly zone is the one that matters most—the American people, whose lives, honor and treasure would be put on the line to keep Gaddafi's planes on the ground. Officially, the Pentagon still claims that no decision has been made to take action. Al Jazeera, however, says that the United States, Britain and France have promised rebels in eastern Libya to set up a "no-fly" zone.

Germany and Turkey are opposing a NATO-led no-fly zone, which appears to rule out that possibility.

Net-net: We move closer to waging a No Fly War against the Libyan government.

Meanwhile, the claims of American supporters of a no-fly zone are becoming ever more grandiose and unrealistic. A Princeton professor of politics and international affairs named—wait for it—Anne-Marie Slaughter argues on the op-ed page of the New York Times that it is “time to act” in Libya. Every argument she marshals in favor of intervention is just one form or another of wishful thinking.

Revolution Will Lead to Good Government

“Now we have a chance to support a real new beginning in the Muslim world — a new beginning of accountable governments that can provide services and opportunities for their citizens in ways that could dramatically decrease support for terrorist groups and violent extremism,” Slaughter writes.

How on earth can she know that this is what will happen in Libya?

There’s no way a reasonable person can conclude from what we know now that what would follow from the fall of Gaddafi is “accountable government,” much less one that “can provide services and opportunities” for its citizens. The Libyans have no history of ever having had such a thing. The notion that revolution will bring it about suddenly is a fantasy that should have died with, well, the French Revolution.

Slaughter also throws in “decreasing support for terrorists groups and violent extremism,” as if the last decade or so of post-Taliban Afghanistan had never happened.

We’ll Have the Arabs on Our Side

“Assuming that a no-flight zone can be imposed by an international coalition that includes Arab states, we have an opportunity to establish a new narrative of Western support for Arab democrats,” Slaughter writes.

Unfortunately, she isn’t entitled to make that assumption. Most Arab states are now locked in struggles with their own people, or recovering from toppling their own governments. The leaders at the Arab League may endorse a no-fly zone, but they cannot meaningfully commit to actively imposing it. This would be a US effort, with perhaps some planes flown by the French and British.

Meanwhile, US critics will point out that we continue to support un-democratic oil rich regimes that are friendly to us. It’s just as likely to be perceived as another US war for oil than Slaughter’s “new narrative.” Slaughter is pretending she knows what she cannot possibly know—what the final judgment of the Arabs will be about our intervention. She thinks they’ll think of us as liberators. We’ve heard that one before.

The No-Fly Zone Will Work

Libyan government forces have only selectively used air power. Gaddafi’s ground forces are outmatching the rebels in every battle, allowing them to march eastward toward Benghazi. Grounding Gaddafi’s airforce may slow the advance but looks unlikely to turn the tide of the war.

Slaughter concedes as much.Instead of turning the tide of the war on the ground, she says that a no-fly zone should be “assessed in terms of Colonel Gaddafi’s own calculations about his future.” How is she privy to the interior of Gaddafi’s mind? She never explains this particular feat of telepathy. Instead, she just uses her mind-reading power to come to conclusions favorable to her chosen path of action.

“If the international community lines up against him and is willing to crater his runways and take out his antiaircraft weapons, he might well renew his offer of a negotiated departure,” she writes.

Well, yes. He “might.” Or he might not. We have no reason to think that such an attack might not have exactly the opposite effect: forcing him to execute the war more brutally to accelerate its end, preventing further intervention by the “international community” that is mostly known as the United States.

The Post-Gaddafi Libya Is Sure to Be Better

“Revolutions are almost always followed by internal divisions among the revolutionaries. We should not expect a rosy, Jeffersonian Libya. But the choice is between uncertainty and the certainty that if Colonel Gaddafi wins, regimes across the region will conclude that force is the way to answer protests,” Slaughter writes.

It’s far from certain that would be the lesson rulers across the region would take away. Many might view the cost of becoming an international pariah and having to slaughter their own people as too high a price to remain in power. The image of quietly retiring to a seaside resort with nearly unlimited wealth hidden in foreign banks might be a far more attractive way to answer protests. I’d rather be Mubarak than Gaddafi. How about you?

What’s more, Slaughter is downplaying the potential ugliness of a post-Gaddafi Libya. We simply have no idea how bloody-minded or divided the people of Libya will be if Gaddafi falls. What happens, for instance, to the black African populations who are allegedly supplying Gaddafi with many of his mercenaries. Will these foreign-born groups be treated well by the victorious rebels?

Unlikely. It’s very possible they could be slaughtered wholesale—a result we would have helped to bring about.

“Any use of force must be carefully and fully debated, but that debate has now been had,” Slaughter writes.

If this is true—if all the arguments for the use of force in Libya have been made—then we can conclude that the supports of a no-fly zone have failed to make the case. Unfortunately, that failure may not keep us out of Libya’s civil war.

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