Not surprisingly, the challenges of setting up a no-fly zone are a bit deeper than most would think:
“Enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya would first require bombing the north African nation’s air defense systems, top US commander General James Mattis warned on Tuesday. A no-fly zone would require removing “the air defense capability first,” Mattis, the head of Central Command, told a Senate hearing. …Although [Qaddafi's] military is badly outgunned by US and NATO aircraft, the regime has dozens of surface-to-air missiles that could shoot down allied warplanes.”
The issue is not really Libyan air defense networks–it seems that they are mostly obsolete , never entirely worked 20 years ago during Operation El Dorado Canyon, and increasingly falling into the hands of the opposition. Rather, the issue is that setting up a no-fly zone involves more than simply intercepting planes. It is a military operation against the remnants of the Libyan government designed to support the ground operations of the various factions arrayed against Qaddafi. And embarking on it may lead to other political and military commitments down the line–just look at the decade-long interregnum between the two Gulf Wars and the Northern Iraq no-fly zone. Even if the Libyan government is on its last legs, that might not be the end of the conflict.
Regional analysts warn that Qaddafi’s total centralization of power has created a vacuum that will make the conflict’s aftermath totally different from what went on in Egypt and Tunisia:
If Qaddafi’s demise only entailed the dissolution of his regime, it would be tempting to declare good riddance and hail the good fortune of the Libyan people in freeing themselves of the old regime in one blow, without having to deal with its remnants, as Tunisians and Egyptians are struggling to do. Unfortunately for Libya, the fall of the House of Qaddafi will not only put an end to his regime, but risks causing the collapse of the Libyan state. Qaddafi’s long reign did nothing to forge institutions that can ensure the continuity of the state beyond regime change. There is no well-organized bureaucracy to ensure administrative continuity. The military and security forces—the institutions of last recourse in weak states—were deliberately fragmented by Qaddafi into militias and special brigades led by his sons and counterbalanced by a large praetorian guard and various paramilitary groups.
It is understandable that the idea of a no-fly zone appeals to humanitarians because it represents a middle ground between a large-scale military intervention and what many largely see as toothless economic and diplomatic action. One of the more useful pieces of the Libya debate for analysis is the light in shines on the issue of gradations of force short of general war–and their role in post-Cold War international politics. Humanitarians share with civilian policy analysts in general a faith in what Micah Zenko calls “discrete military operations” (DMOs).
DMOs are attractive because they seemingly imply little long-term commitment, and rely on technological or purely military advantages that would appear to be devastatingly effective against grossly underpowered foes. Perhaps the classic example of this is the scene in Iron Man in which the title character blows away a dozen marauding Afghan militants without harming a single innocent, like a high-tech version of Dirty Harry.
Moral shame is often an effective tool for gaining support for DMOs. If the United States military is so vastly superior to the rest, humanitarians claim, why can’t it use a tiny fraction of its force to wipe out a pack of Sudanese janjaweed or Qaddafi militiamen? Especially when juxtaposed with media images of large-scale suffering, calls for DMOs can motivate policymakers to make rash decisions about the use of force.
The problem with DMOs, as Zenko catalogs in his book on the subject, is that the use of military force–period–is much more complex than most people imagine. Technical matters of logistics and tactics often have larger political implications. Even the technical requirements tend to be routinely under-estimated by advocates of DMOs. Moreover, DMOs tend to have an extremely mixed track record of achieving both political and military objectives.
Ultimately, technical excellence cannot substitute for sound policy and strategy. And DMOs tend to be utilized as exactly that–a substitute for a sound policy because policymakers are reluctant to get militarily involved but feel a pressure to “do something.”
Thus, formulating sound policy based on national interest, morality, and practicality is of greater concern at present than hastily establishing a no-fly zone simply to react to events.