No-Fly Zones as Security Theater

I wrote a long post for the National Interest yesterday arguing against US participation in a no-fly zone over Libya. Here are highlights:

Given the spectrum of ways that the United States can help Libya’s rebels, it’s odd that debate here centers on a no-fly zone, a form of military intervention that shows support for rebels without much helping them. No-fly zones commit us to winning wars but demonstrate our limited will to win them. That is why they are bad public policy.

No-fly zones are best suited to helping ground forces that can defend themselves against an opponent once we suppress its airpower. Northern Iraq in the 1990s is arguably a successful example. But they do little to overthrow entrenched leaders or help lightly-armed rebels defeat heavier forces. They do even less to protect civilians against armies or militias.

If we care enough for the fate of the Libyan revolution to kill for it, we should take decisive action in its favor, such as using airpower to attack pro-Qaddafi forces. If we are rooting for the rebels to win but do not care enough to kill Libyans directly or risk our pilots’ lives, we should limit ourselves to providing them with intelligence (intercepts and surveillance primarily), advice, and maybe arms while sanctioning the regime and jamming its communications. If other nations want to intervene, we should offer them like support, including transport to the fight. If we limit ourselves to those actions, we should do so in recognition of two risks. First, we may simply prolong a war and increase civilian suffering (the same goes for no-fly zones, as Doug Bandow wrote yesterday). Second, our efforts are likely to fail. We may soon be dealing with a regime we tried to overthrow, one that may return to its outlaw habits. If we are unwilling chance that, we should sit on our hands and admit that politics requires tough choices. I lean toward the second course.

What we should most avoid is confusing security and philanthropy. When leaders talk as if our intervention is protecting Americans but execute it as if they are doing charity work that merits little risk, they sow harmful confusion. Our potential allies may expect more than we are willing to give and take chances that they otherwise would not. The American public may come to support another dubious war based on threat exaggeration.