Call me born-again cautious, but after several weeks of calling for an international no-fly zone over Libya – and as an international consensus for one continues to grow – I find myself wondering if the most important benefits from such an intervention are still actually available. In such matters “if it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly” (to borrow from Macbeth), and in some important ways it may already be too late.
A no-fly zone imposed weeks ago would have placed the United States and the West squarely on the side not only of the Libyan rebellion, but Arab change in general. It would have made it virtually impossible for anyone to argue with a straight face that the West was so addicted to securing oil supplies and regional stability that it viewed dramatic or revolutionary change in the Arab order as undesirable.
The moment of maximum opportunity to achieve this objective came in the immediate aftermath of Moammar al-Qaddafi’s first televised address to the Libyan people, in which he denounced the revolt as a joint Al-Qaeda-American plot and threatened to cleanse Libya “house by house.” It was a psychotic performance that raised the deepest fears throughout the Arab world about the regime’s willingness to unleash massive force to quell the uprising. Swift action then would have been received among Arabs as a legitimate rescue operation, a humanitarian intervention born of alarm about the potential bloodbath threatened by a mad tyrant and his state apparatus.
Instead of repeating the ill-will generated by the no-fly zones over Iraq, a Libyan no-fly zone imposed at that time would have constituted an implicit American apology for having promoted rebellion in southern Iraq in 1991, only to let it to be crushed by Saddam Hussein’s air power before a no-fly zone was belatedly imposed.
However, now, after so much hesitation, an international no-fly zone will seem calculated, tentative and self-interested, and will come across much more like an intervention in a civil war rather than a humanitarian rescue operation. The Arab League endorsement of the idea does not make it more palatable to most Arabs. On the contrary, the body brings together the regimes that are most threatened by regional change. It may be that concern about the transformations that might be triggered through such intervention has made the option less desirable, and that this hesitation has had the contrary effect of reducing the ability of the West to influence outcomes in Libya.
A few weeks ago, momentum on the battlefield and in Libyan political life seemed to be entirely with the rebellion. A no-fly zone at that stage might have contributed to shaking the confidence of the regime and hindering its ability to counterattack, operate its air power and ferry mercenaries in and out of Libya. Now, the momentum has shifted markedly toward the regime, and Qaddafi’s downfall looks much less imminent, or even likely, than before. Meanwhile, the most dangerous Islamist extremists have either escaped from prison or have been released by the regime, adding a dangerous Salafist-Jihadist element to the mix that was not present a few weeks ago.
Not only does all of this change the political and psychological impact of a no-fly zone project, it greatly strengthens the possibility that such a zone would bring about a protracted civil conflict that leads to the de facto division of Libya into various fiefdoms. One of the greatest threats facing the process of Arab change is the dissolution of some Arab societies into Somalia-style failed states. Yemen is the most likely to head in that direction, but Libya is a candidate as well, presenting a dystopian scenario nobody wants to help promote. The longer the international community hesitates, the more likely a no-fly zone will simply impose a deadlock that assures Libya’s disintegration.
In and of itself, a no-fly zone would never have produced regime change. Part of its appeal was that it would not have undermined the Libyans’ ability to shape their own future. But it did raise the possibility of international boots being deployed on the ground (a very bad idea) if the regime survived over the long-term. Introducing a no-fly zone now will come across as more a strategic than a humanitarian decision, and will raise the same possibility about a foreign military presence, certainly more than it would have weeks ago.
A no-fly zone is still probably the best option. But its benefits would have been infinitely greater had it been introduced at the right moment rather than at this stage – belatedly and with visible reluctance.
Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.