Tag: no-fly zone

WSJ Calls for No-Fly Zone in Syria, Acknowledges No-Fly Zone Isn’t Enough

It seems the Wall Street Journal editorial board has yet to identify a conflict in which the United States should not intervene. Today, they again call for U.S. military intervention in Syria and criticize President Obama for his inaction. Their main recommendation? Easy: set up a no-fly zone: 

The U.S. could boost its diplomatic leverage with the rebels and their regional allies by enforcing no-fly zones over portions of Syria. That would help prevent the regime from using its attack jets and helicopter gunships against civilian targets while allowing insurgents to consolidate and extend their territorial gains. It also means we could use limited force in a way that strengthens the hand of rebels we support at the expense of those we don’t. 

The key point here is that the Journal leaves open the possibility of using “limited force” to help the rebels. Indeed, this is what no-fly zones often become: precursors to additional involvement at a later date (think Iraq and Libya). I argued as much last week: 

If the no-fly zone fails to swiftly halt the violence, some will claim that preserving U.S. credibility requires an even deeper commitment. Or [no-fly zones] can just become a slippery slope in their own right. The ink was barely dry on the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya before the mission morphed into a no-drive zone on the ground, and then a major military operation to overthrow Qaddafi’s government. 

As a general rule, we shouldn’t send our military on feel-good missions that have little chance of success. And that is what no-fly zones are. They also have a clear political purpose, in this case to ensure that the opposition prevails over the Assad regime and its supporters. There is no such thing as an impartial intervention. 

In Libya, there wasn’t such an explicit call for a no-fly zone as a means to toppling Muammar Gaddafi. The UN resolution authorizing the no-fly zone did not include “regime change” as a goal, but that’s what it became. In Syria, a no-fly zone would be used explicitly for the purpose of toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But if regime change is the goal, a no-fly zone will not do much to lead us there. They are security-theater, as Ben Friedman has pointed out: “No-fly zones commit us to winning wars but demonstrate our limited will to win them. That is why they are bad public policy.” 

More Calls for Intervention in Syria

Pressure is building on President Obama to involve the United States more deeply in the brutal civil war in Syria that may have claimed as many as 70,000 lives, and created more than a million refugees. Late last week, the editorial board of the Washington Post called for “aggressive intervention by the United States and its allies to protect the opposition and civilians.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) apparently believes that the Post didn’t go far enough because the editorial explicitly ruled out sending U.S. ground troops. He wants the U.S. military to secure suspected chemical weapons caches there. But where Graham is leading few will follow, aside from his frequent co-conspirator, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). The American people are not anxious to send U.S. troops into the middle of yet another civil war in the region.

Some do want the U.S. government to do more, however, and not just the people who sold us the war in Iraq. For example, during a stop in Saudi Arabia earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry made vague references to increasing the flow of arms to the Syrian opposition. Back here in Washington, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) became the latest to call for establishing a no-fly zone over Syria. Arms supplied to resistance fighters can be directed against other targets when the regime collapses (or may simply prolong the war if it doesn’t), which is why no-fly zones are seen as the less risky option. They could satisfy the understandable human instinct to be seen as doing something, anything, in the face of enormous human suffering. As such, if President Obama were to institute a no-fly zone, it might forestall an even more costly and risky operation, one that did involve U.S. troops on the ground. 

But no-fly zones often become precursors to additional involvement at a later date. If the no-fly zone fails to swiftly halt the violence, some will claim that preserving U.S. credibility requires an even deeper commitment. Or they can just become a slippery slope in their own right. The ink was barely dry on the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya before the mission morphed into a no-drive zone on the ground, and then a major military operation to overthrow Qaddafi’s government. 

As a general rule, we shouldn’t send our military on feel-good missions that have little chance of success. And that is what no-fly zones are. They also have a clear political purpose, in this case to ensure that the opposition prevails over the Assad regime and its supporters. There is no such thing as an impartial intervention. We are choosing sides, and arguably already have, without a clear sense that the regime that comes after will be an improvement over what came before. We are placing ourselves into the middle of a much wider sectarian dispute taking place throughout the region. 

Claims that the United States has a unique opportunity to shape the political process in Syria are equally misguided. Though we wish otherwise, a U.S. government stamp of approval is likely to undermine the legitimacy of genuine democrats in Syria, to the extent that there are any. And we know that the opposite is true: individuals or groups singled out for criticism, for example the al-Nasra Front, have seen their stature rise. The reason is simple: the American brand has never been lower in the region, and is held in particularly low regard in Syria. 

When I wrote about Syria late last year (here and here), I was reasonably confident that President Obama would not intervene, in spite of the fact that his decision to help the Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Qaddafi established a precedent for a similar regime-change operation in Syria. The key distinctions between the two cases include UN Security Council support for intervention in Libya, but not in Syria, a relatively well-defined mission in Libya, but not in Syria, and a reasonable expectation that the costs of military operations could be kept limited, and would deliver clear results, which was true in Libya, but is not true in Syria. Earlier this week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey threw cold water on the notion that the military could produce an acceptable outcome in Syria. 

The general’s candor is both welcome and refreshing. Although the suffering in Syria is gut-wrenching, the U.S. military lacks the ability to resolve the underlying social and political disputes that are driving the civil war. Indeed, as Ben Friedman pointed out last year, outside intervention might actually prolong such conflicts, or initiate new ones, resulting in even greater loss of life. 

The American people have so far proved unwilling to intervene in Syria, and are particularly resistant to the idea of U.S. troops marching on Damascus. They were similarly disinclined to become involved in Libya, however, and the president ignored the public in that previous case. He should not do so with respect to Syria. And Congress shouldn’t allow it if he tries.

Friday Links

  • When is an entitlement not an entitlement, but a command? When a federal judge contradicts herself, of course.
  • As the Arab League’s influence over its own member states wanes, of course they support the creation of an international no-fly zone over Libya.
  • Of course, there’s really no such thing as a “Social Security trust fund.”
  • Should the United States and Saudi Arabia remain allies? Of course—but Washington should probably re-think the terms of the partnership.
  • Of course, when George W. Bush was president, you couldn’t go anywhere in Washington without seeing an anti-war protest. Where have they all gone?


Tuesday Links

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.

Thursday Links

  • “If financial institutions are indeed better than consumers at managing interest risk, then those companies should be able to offer consumers attractive terms for doing so — without the moral hazard of an enormous taxpayer backstop.”
  • We should be thankful that the president is spending time on his golf game.
  • After all, he recently reinstated military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay and has continued the use of extra-constitutional prisons in the U.S. after the Bush era.
  • 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.”
  • Does Haley Barbour really want to cut defense spending? Or is he just really politically astute? 

Should America ‘Liberate’ Libya?

In 2008, the election of President Barack Obama was widely touted as a repudiation of President George W. Bush’s messianic vision that “Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity—men and women—to reach their full potential.” In the years following America’s failed democratic experiment in Iraq, many Americans began to spurn the Bush era’s presumptuous conviction that “We have the power to make the world we seek.” Liberals in particular roundly rejected the supposed “unyielding belief” that America is called to lead the cause of “rule of law” and “the equal administration of justice” around the world. Such pious declarations are in keeping with Bush’s neo-Wilsonian foreign policy.  Does it surprise you then, that all of the quotes above were made by President Obama in his June 2009 speech at Cairo University?

Americans who favor establishing a no-fly zone over Libya hope that such an effort will save lives. What Americans have not learned is exactly what transgressions warrant the use of American force. The primary constitutional function of the U.S. Government is to defend against threats to the national interest. However, because the definition of “interest” has expanded by leaps and bounds, the United States now combats an exhausting proliferation of “threats” even in the absence of discernable enemies. Hence, the proposal of a no-fly zone over Libya is merely the latest iteration of a long-standing grand strategy that implicitly endorses an interventionist foreign policy.

Despite the fact that humanitarian assistance to Libya remains, in principle, morally defensible, the primary question is whether military action is best suited to such a task. As Christopher Coyne, Assistant Professor of Economics at West Virginia University argues, its the “Nirvana Fallacy.”

The Nirvana Fallacy is the false assumption that in the face of weak, failed or illiberal governments, external occupiers can provide a better outcome than what would exist in the absence of those efforts. But what authority does President Obama have to embark upon a mission to change the very structure of societies on the other side of the earth?

As a libertarian, I believe that intangible variables such as values, traditions, and belief systems, go beyond a U.S. policymaker’s ability—and jurisdiction—to control. Yet with worldwide attention now on Libya, it seems that once again the extension of freedom abroad is being subsumed under the mantle of America’s legitimate self-defense. Don’t believe the hype.

As George Kennan, American diplomat and “father of Cold War containment” strategy once said:

“Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before…In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it.”

Kennan continues: “Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.”

Now imagine if a politician wanted to build a bridge and said “I don’t know how much it will cost. I don’t know how many engineers I need. I don’t know how long it will take. And I don’t know whether it’ll even get built or stay up if it is. But give me the money and I’ll build the bridge anyway.” Yet this is exactly what we do when it comes to intervention. Never mind how long a no-fly zone will last, how many soldiers we would commit, or how whether it may precipitate a ground invasion and possibly regime change. We apply more stringent criteria to domestic policy than to proposals to pacify a foreign population.

Like most Americans, I too have a natural desire to see human suffering alleviated.  And so the United States can and should support people’s power and other anti-government movements when possible. But Americans have become confused over what “support” really means. Not backing dictators with billions of dollars would be a start. Another would be, when feasible, resorting to economic sanctions, though they have a poor track record. But we have come to rely too heavily—almost as an option of first resort—of relying on military intervention. Luckily, the shockwave of mass protests sweeping through the Middle East finally gives America the opportunity to support freedom in the Middle East in a non-military way. Accordingly, a foreign-led effort to liberate Libya will implicitly deprive local people of their ability to deal with this political conflict on their own. As British philosopher John Stuart Mill writes in his classic text “A Few Words on Nonintervention,” the subjects of an oppressive ruler must achieve freedom for themselves:

The only test possessing any real value, of a people’s having become fit for popular institutions is that they, or a sufficient portion of them to prevail in the contest, are willing to brave labour and danger for their liberation.

But the evil is, that if they have not sufficient love of liberty to be able to wrest it from merely domestic oppressors, the liberty which is bestowed on them by other hands than their own, will have nothing real, nothing permanent.