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Wednesday, March 09, 2011 

The case against a Libyan no fly zone.

You might have noticed that at the top of this blog there's a quote from Hegel, placed there just to emphasise that you're entering the territory of someone pretentious enough to quote 19th century German philosophers while moaning about how awful the tabloids are. It's also hardly the most original thought - numerous members of the great and not so good down the years have pointed out that we have this awful habit of learning precisely naff all from the past. This illness also infects some of those who tell us that history is the key to everything: just look at Michael Gove, who wants to transform the teaching of the subject in this country into exactly what kids loathe - an endless procession of English Kings and Queens - then witness his touching belief that the invasion of Iraq was a "proper British foreign policy success".

When it comes to Libya, we have a competition between those in favour of the imposition of a no-fly zone and those against over just how our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan should influence our current policy. Michael Lind and Anne Applebaum for two caution against in varying styles considering our past performance, while Ming Campbell and Phillipe Sands along with Geoffrey Robertson plea for us to not forget our duty to the Libyan people. The Avaaz global petition site meanwhile has launched into action, urging a million to sign up to a statement lobbying the UN Security Council to introduce a resolution authorising action without delay.

What I find so remarkable isn't so much that we yet again have many of the usual suspects agitating for an armed intervention at the first possible opportunity; that's to be expected. It's instead the intellectual dishonesty of not spelling out what a no-fly zone means in practice which is staggering, only rivalled by the insouciant attitude with which it's being put forward, implying that setting up and enforcing such a zone would be easy. Read the piece by Campbell and Sands and there's nary a mention of how the very first thing we'd have to do would be to "disable" (i.e. drop explosive ordnance on) Gaddafi's anti-air defences, not all of which are obviously still in his hands to begin with, or how his jets would almost certainly have to be destroyed along with them.

Others arguing for intervention, such as John McCain, who it seems has never seen a Middle Eastern/Arab state he didn't want to bomb, have treated such actions as if they weren't even necessary, as though somehow Gaddafi would tolerate Western military aircraft patrolling his airspace at will without attempting to shoot them down. Campbell and Sands are in fact if anything even more disingenuous, saying that none of what they propose can be led by the US or Britain, with our role being merely to "provide ideas and active support to the Arab League, African Union and Gulf Cooperation Council". So they'll be the ones carrying out the initial raids will they? The idea that anyone outside of NATO will be involved is patently absurd.

It also ignores how even if those ostensibly leading the Libyan uprising are now begging for Gaddafi's air resources to be taken out of action that none of the members of those organisations Campbell and Sands name are in support as yet of a no-fly zone; some are actively opposed, as could be expected from states that would fear the same demands could be made against them in the future. As compelling and impassioned as the pleas being made for an intervention are, the difference between helping the revolution non-militarily and actively interceding on the side of the opposition in what increasingly looks like a civil war is so minute as to be all but indistinguishable. It would effectively be a declaration of war, and one which quickly leads to demands for an expansion of the original aims. What after all is the point of setting up a no-fly zone if it doesn't stop Gaddafi from doing what he currently is, which is launching attacks on rebel-held towns with artillery and tanks, relying on only the occasional air strike or gunship attack? The rebels have said they can buy their own weapons, yet by the time they obtain them they might well have been worn down through lack of supplies and the exhaustion inflicted through battling against well-trained troops with only a volunteer militia.

The sad fact is that nothing Gaddafi has yet done justifies international intervention in Libya, even under the highly subjective and dubious principle of "responsibility to protect". As Simon Jenkins argues, this is an invitation to global mayhem. It has to be remembered that many of those now arguing for us to intervene on the side of the good guys are the exact same people who think that Israel's right to defend herself from mainly home-made rockets that have killed a grand total of 23 people over 10 years is so total that the deaths of over 1,000 Palestinians in just one response was worth it. The destruction dealt to Gaza, along with the continuing economic blockade of the territory could just as easily be felt to constitute a "systematic violation of fundamental human rights". As the attention of the world is on Tripoli, all out civil war looks close to breaking out in Ivory Coast, the two leaders of the opposition Green movement are under house arrest in Iran, and Saudi Arabia has banned all demonstrations, something which has strangely resulted in no adverse comment from the same countries demanding Gaddafi go immediately. We've moved from a position of active military co-operation to potential war in the space of three weeks, which even by our standards of reduced attention spans and easily induced boredom is exceptional.

None of this is to suggest we can't do more to help the Libyan revolution, such as through supplying arms, although even this is fraught with the danger of not knowing exactly what sort of government will eventually take shape should Gaddafi be overthrown. As bleak as the situation currently looks, there's the possibility that the emphasis on taking back territory could leave Tripoli itself either lightly defended or policed, enabling those there to lead an uprising which would strike a blow from which the regime would find it impossible to recover. History may not end up judging inaction kindly, but the very least it demands is a honest debate about what a no-fly zone really entails.

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