White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Wednesday that the Obama administration is “actively considering” imposing a no-fly zone over Libya in response to the ongoing regime-backed attacks on the population there. Although the White House has consistently said that all options are on the table, including military contingencies, senior administration officials over the past week have expressed strong public skepticism about the efficacy and wisdom of a no-fly zone.
Defense secretary Robert Gates last week told Congress that a no-fly zone would require “an attack on Libya,” and urged restraint. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asked twice whether she supports a no-fly zone, declined to answer directly. “I think it’s very important that this not be a US-led effort,” she said. NATO ambassador Ivo Daalder, in remarks that the White House directed reporters to for an understanding of administration thinking, said flatly that a no-fly zone would not work. “[I]t's important to understand that no-fly zones...really have a limited effect against the helicopters or the kind of ground operations that we've seen, which is why a no-fly zone, even if it were to be established, isn't really going to impact what is happening there today,” Daalder said. “And the kinds of capabilities that are being used to attack the rebel forces and, indeed, the population will be largely unaffected by a no-fly zone.”
And on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, White House chief of staff Bill Daley claimed that some proponents of a no-fly zone were either flippant about the use of force or ignorant – perhaps both. “Lots of people throw around phrases of 'no-fly zone' and they talk about it as though it's just a game, a video game or something. Some people who throw that line out have no idea what they're talking about.”
The skepticism from Democrats about no-fly zones in north Africa is new. Just four years ago, Democratic candidates for president were virtually unanimous in their support of a no-fly zone to stop the killing in Darfur. As then-senator Barack Obama put it: “Nobody disagrees with the no-fly zone.”
His comments came during a Democratic primary debate on June 3, 2007, as the candidates discussed the situation in Sudan. Obama argued that the imperative for U.S. action in Darfur was moral and strategic and he blamed the Bush administration for frittering away America’s moral authority. “Two things. One, we are going to continue to see some of these problems in ungoverned spaces. We’ve got a security interest and a humanitarian interest in dealing with this. We’ve got to work internationally to figure out how we can get forces to stop genocides like this.” He continued: “Second point, our legitimacy is reduced when we’ve got a Guantanamo that is open, when we suspend habeas corpus. Those kinds of things erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principles, and that’s one of the reasons why those kinds of issues are so important.”
Senator Joe Biden, who had previously on several occasions introduced legislation calling for a no-fly zone in Sudan, disagreed with Obama. It wasn’t so much Guantanamo that cost the U.S. leverage internationally, but our paralysis in the face of a crisis. Biden worried that the slow grind of international diplomacy was eroding U.S. moral authority. “The reason we have no moral authority is we’re not acting,” he argued, contrasting the U.S. dithering on Darfur with the urgency of the American approach in Bosnia in the 1990s which, Biden claimed, “saved hundreds of thousands of lives.” He said: “By the time all these guys talk, 50,000 more people are going to be dead. They’re going to be dead. And I tell you, I guarantee you, we have the capacity by setting up a no-fly zone to shut down the Janjaweed. That’s our moral authority. Exercise it.”
When Biden’s answer won him applause, Obama interrupted. “Nobody disagrees with the no-fly zone.”
Three weeks later, Senator Hillary Clinton joined Biden and Obama in pushing for direct U.S. action. She called for assistance to U.N. and African Union peacekeepers, support that could “only come either unilaterally from the United States or from NATO.” Clinton said she preferred NATO action. She continued: “We should have a no-fly zone over Sudan because the Sudanese governments bomb the villages before and after the Janjaweed come. And we should make it very clear to the government in Khartoum we’re putting up a no-fly zone. If they fly into it, we will shoot down their planes. It is the only way to get the attention.”
Biden said he’d been calling “for three years to stop talking and start acting.” And by “acting” he meant both a no-fly zone and ground troops. “If need be, if the rest of the world will not act, we should, and should have already – two years ago – imposed a no-fly zone, and we should have two years ago, absent the willingness of the rest of the world to act, put American troops on the ground to stop the carnage.”
Later in the exchange, Obama reiterated his support for U.S. intervention. “The no-fly zone is important. Having the protective force is critical.”
There are many similarities between Sudan and Libya, which share a border: A repressive regime using airpower to slaughter anti-government forces; a fractured, under-armed opposition; and complicated religious, ethnic and tribal allegiances.
But there are significant differences, too, including the fact that the fighting in Darfur had been raging for years and in Libya it has been weeks. And Obama administration officials argue that the level of air activity in Libya has been decreasing.
Daalder, on the same conference call Monday, said: “We have actually seen a decrease in both fighter and overall air activity over the weekend. It really peaked late last week and it’s starting to come down. And indeed, to date, the overall air activity has not been the deciding factor in the ongoing unrest…It’s important to understand that no-fly zones are more effective against fighters, but they really have a limited effect against the helicopters or the kind of ground operations that we’ve seen, which is why a no-fly zone, even if it were to be established, isn’t really going to impact what is happening there today. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at it – and we are and we will – but it is not going to be the solution to every problem.”
Skeptics of a no-fly zone in Libya also argue that it would have limited impact on helicopters. But much of the damage done from the air in Sudan came from helicopters, so it's hard to understand why proponents of a no-fly zone in Sudan would oppose one in Libya because of concerns about helicopters.
According to Africa expert J. Peter Pham, vice president of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, enforcing no-fly zones over Libya and Darfur would present “slightly different challenges.” Pham believes that setting up a no-fly zone over Libya would present fewer challenges than the one expressed in the context of Sudan and that it could also be more effective. But it would also create more risks.
Whereas Darfur is “far form the coast of Africa, [and] enforcing a no-fly zone is strategically more difficult,” Pham said, Libya is on the coast so the U.S. would be able to utilize an aircraft carrier from the waters to support the mission. But there’s another difference, according to Pham: Libya might be “more of a challenge, since Qaddafi could fight back.” Libya spends more, as a percentage of GDP, on its military – “and bought more sophisticated weapons systems.”
Still, if the reasons for U.S. intervention in Sudan were self-evident and if Barack Obama believed that the imposition of no-fly zone was an obvious part of the solution – “nobody disagrees with the no-fly zone” – why are top Obama administration officials claiming without qualification that a no-fly zone will not work, and why are those who make similar arguments today derided by the White House as video gamers?