No Fly: A Tactic in Search of a Strategy?

Florida congressman Alan Grayson.

Image via Wikipedia

Received from “Committee to Elect Alan Grayson” today:

One of the unfortunate imperatives of public life is that when something is the lead story, you think you’ve got to be doing something about it. Not just have an opinion on it. Be doing something about it.

Volcano erupts? Prepare a news release on the new anti-volcano policy.

Zombies are multiplying? Introduce anti-zombie legislation.

Well, Libya’s been on the front page for a month now. Demonstrations. Civil unrest. Army attacks, etc. So our world leaders think that they’ve got to be doing something about it.

Hence the Libya no-fly zone.

Here is a link to UN Security Resolution 1973, authorizing the Libya no-fly zone. It shows a laudable, albeit rather repetitive, concern for civilian wellbeing. It also completely fails to explain how a no-fly zone will ensure the safety of civilians.

The Libyan Air Force hasn’t received a major delivery of new aircraft in 22 years. Roughly three-quarters of its “air”craft can’t fly.

It is true that the Libyan Air Force, such as it is, has been deployed. But the serious threat to civilians in Libya is not from the Libyan Air Force. It’s from the government security forces on the ground. A no-fly zone does not take away their guns, or their artillery.

For outsiders like us, there are two questions to answer:

(1) Do you want Gaddafi in or out?(2) Either way, what are you willing to do about it?

Here are my answers:

(1) Out, because Gaddafi is a dictator who has stunted the development of his country and its people (although in a list of the 5,000 things that are most important to America, I’d have to rank this close to the bottom, even if it is on the evening news every night).(2) Economic sanctions, including extending the de facto oil embargo and asset freeze that already are in effect.

And it’s likely that an oil embargo/asset freeze will work. Oil is 95% of Libya’s exports, and 25% of GNP. Libya has about four years of oil revenue in the bank, but with an asset freeze and economic sanctions, that becomes meaningless. Whatever the result in the streets, as soon as Gaddafi runs out of money, he’s gone.

But a no-fly zone? In the case of Libya, that’s a tactic in search of a strategy. The Yiddish word for it is “shmei,” roughly translated as aimless strolling around. A no-fly zone is basically just looking like you’re doing something to remove Gaddafi, at the cost of $60 million in a day (which was the cost of the first day’s worth of cruise missiles launched).

The last time we tried this, in Iraq, we had to sustain it for 12 years. At enormous effort and expense. And it didn’t bring down Saddam at all.

More fundamentally, a no-fly zone in Libya feeds the dangerous fantasy that every problem has a military solution. That the answer to the use of force is the use of more force. That if a hammer doesn’t drive that nail in, try a howitzer.

It was Mao Tse-Tung who said that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Do we really want Mao’s principles running our foreign policy?


Alan Grayson

“I said you wanna be startin’ somethin’
You got to be startin’ somethin’
I said you wanna be startin’ somethin’
You got to be startin’ somethin’”

–Michael Jackson


I agree with Grayson on some but not all points, and he leaves some important issues unmentioned.

Here’s Poor Richard’s take on Libya and similar scenarios:

  • People who just talk about the costs are shitbirds.
  • Let’s not be hypocrites. Prior to (or at least in parallel with) military intervention use all other means, which includes reversing all the ways we have been helping/enabling the regime for decades.
  • Declare US corporations and persons which do business with or aid the regime to be terrorists, war criminals, or whatever shoe that fits. Revoke their corporate charters, passports, freeze their assets, etc. Softer sanctions worked with South Africa.
  • That’s probably enough, but if not, military intervention should be conducted through the UN, or at least through allies from the same region as the regime.
  • Weapons systems we supply to such allies should be loaned and recovered after the conflict.
  • Any direct US military intervention (alone or with allies but not UN approved) must be in defense of non-combatants only.
  • I see the US as a first-responder resource the UN could contract for rapid deployment and if it did so we should be entitled to deduct costs from our dues.
  • I have no doubt that UN process still has serious bugs but we should work sincerely and rapidly to resolve them and make the UN the prime contractor for all humanitarian military intervention.
  • UN blessing must be a very high priority for US (so we must keep dues paid up) and we should expect to pay a penalty or fine of some kind if we jump the gun without UN approval— as sometimes we may still choose to do, and which is consistent with a US that is a good-faith UN partner but still a sovereign and independent nation.
  • Finally, there’s a bit more that must be said about the US exercising military force either as 1) an agent of the UN or 2) working through regional allies. In these cases, which are to be the preferred (in that order) modes of operation, the US Armed Forces must learn to take orders from a UN or foreign chain of command. This is something that many old-school US military personnel and civilians alike cannot swallow. But that’s tough titty. It is not a surrender of sovereignty. It is really just playing well with others. Those who are too immature and insecure to play well with others must STFU, take a time-out, and stand in the corner while those who CAN play by the rules take the field. I believe the terms I’ve outlined here are the only ways we can project our power without rightly being accused of Imperialism, colonialism, hubris, bad-faith, hypocrisy, etc. and without creating a blow-back that is worse than the problems we set out to fix–in other words, that is, without shooting ourselves in the foot.

One Response to “No Fly: A Tactic in Search of a Strategy?”

  1. Waging Peace | Poor Richard's Almanack 2.0 Says:

    […] A couple of years ago I posted How to wage war on war and last year I reviewed Alan Grayson‘s comments on the Libya conflict, No Fly: A Tactic in Search of a Strategy? […]

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