No to no-fly zones, yes to European unity

Why the no-fly zone is a bad idea and why the United States should concentrate on supporting the Europeans Photo: Associated Press

PARIS — March 7, 2011 – When innocent people are dying at the hands of a dictator as ridiculous as Moammar Gadhafi, it is understandable that many well-intentioned people will cry out for action, no matter how far away Libya is and no matter how little the situation affects American interests. If the violence continues, as it probably will, the demand for action, any action, will grow shriller; and the President may be tempted into taking a half-hearted measure just to quiet the crowd. One such measure is the no-fly zone.

The no-fly zone, according to the Secretary of Defense, is indeed a military operation that requires the neutralization of Libya’s air defenses. But the question is not so much the no-fly zone itself but what will happen after it is imposed. What if it does not lead to Gadhafi’s fall? What will the President do then? If he gives up, he will look weak; if he escalates, he risks another morass. 

Anti-Gadhafi rebels run away as smoke rises following an air strike by Libyan warplanes, Monday, March 7, 2011. (Photo: Associated Press)

Anti-Gadhafi rebels run away as smoke rises following an air strike by Libyan warplanes, Monday, March 7, 2011. (Photo: Associated Press)

What we are seeing in Libya is more a civil war than a revolution. The situation resembles Iraq in 2004 more than it does Egypt in 2011. 

In Libya, unlike in Egypt, the army is not a national institution. It has been weakened over the years by Gadhafi himself, and it lacks the prestige and authority to grasp the reins of power in an event such as this. In fact, there is in Libya no such thing as a national institution – no king, no ayatollah, no parliament, and no real concept of national sovereignty.

As the various parties in Iraq were held together by the cruel and heavy hand of Saddam Hussein so they are held together in Libya by the hand of Moammar Gadhafi. With the fall of Gadhafi, we must expect what we did not expect with the fall of Saddam Hussein – internal conflict. If Gadhafi is toppled, there will be a contest for his throne, and there is no guarantee that this contest will assume a peaceful tone. In Iraq, at least there was a foreign military presence to act as a stabilizing force, but there is no indication as of yet that Libya will be endowed with such an asset.

Thus we have before us, as a worst case scenario, a failed state which turns into a haven for the most extremist elements of the region – all of this, only a stone’s throw away from Europe.

For the European states, this is a first-rate challenge and one that will demand the utmost of their capacity to unite. The Europeans must see in this crisis an opportunity in their march toward further integration. That it is being placed on their platter while an economic crisis looms in the background, unleashing forces of a more divisive nature, makes the current moment pregnant with historical meaning.

But a common policy is empty without the possibility of common action, and if the action should take a military turn, American help is crucial, especially in the areas of logistics and intelligence. This help we should be willing to give. We cannot intervene directly, but we can strengthen the hand of the Europeans by giving them the option of intervening. 

I am aware that this goes very much against the grain of our foreign policy and also of our character, for we are more accustomed to playing the role of leader, putting ourselves in front and assuming the lion’s share of the risks. But the situation in Libya does not merit such a sacrifice. Our function is rather that of coordinator, working behind the scenes quietly, while the Europeans take on the brunt of the responsibility for a problem that, in the main, affects European interests.

European leaders must see in this crisis the opportunity that is inherent in every danger. If they can set aside their quarrels and form a common policy, new life will be breathed into the neglected cause of European unity. But if they fail, the detractors who have always regarded that cause as a fantasy will be proven right.

Can the Europeans do it? Can the West form a common front? We will see what happens in the coming weeks and months. 


Benjamin Ra is a graduate student in International Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. American foreign policy is his main interest. Read more of Benjamin’s writing in A Word in the National Interest in the Communities at the Washington Times.



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Benjamin Ra

Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate of Sciences Po Paris. He writes mainly on foreign policy and is currently residing in South Korea. 

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