It has become quite popular within the press and among pundits in the past several days to raise the prospects of erecting no-fly zones over Libya, the purpose of which is to deny Muammar Gaddafi’s air force the ability to attack rebellious groups in his country. The idea is beguiling, because it appears to provide a quick-fix, action-oriented way to respond the growing crisis in the country and to deny the Libyan dictator the ability to attack and slaughter his own people in locations where his land forces either cannot get to or to which they have been denied access. It is also an apparently cheap, not especially dangerous way to apply force for NATO, since Libya is a quick flight across the Mediterranean from bases in places like France, Italy and Spain, and since the Libyan air force probably would do little effectively to stop the over flights by allied patrols.
The precedent for establishing such zones is Iraq during the 1990s. In the wake of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein set upon rebellious Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. In the Kurdish case, many fled across the border into Turkey, where they formed an unwanted refugee problem for the Turkish government, which insisted they quit the Turkish mountain sides and go home. The Kurds refused, knowing they would likely be slaughtered if they did so. The United States, which had encouraged the Kurds to rebel in the first place, was caught in the middle. Turkey is a valued ally, and thus their demands that the Kurds leave could not be ignored, but at the same time, we were sensitive to the likely Kurdish fate if they were simply sent home. The solution was to make it safe for the Kurds to go back to Iraqi Kurdistan, and the vehicle was a no-fly zone that would keep Iraqi forces out of Kurdish territory. Originally named Operation Provide Comfort and later rechristened Northern Watch in 1997, the erection of this protection convinced the Kurds to return, averting the crisis. The same shield was later extended to the Shiite southern region of the country as Operation Southern Watch.
An ingenious solution, one might conclude, and a precedent custom made for the current Libyan crisis, where a beleaguered population is at the mercy of Libyan air strikes. In one sense, that is true, but one should also be sensitive to another aspect of such operations: they are open-ended–there is no easy “exit strategy” once they are imposed.
Northern/Southern Watch offers the cautionary note. Once the no-fly were established over Iraq, they had to continue indefinitely. They could not be lifted, because doing so would have given Saddam Hssein a carte blanche to attack the Kurds and Shiites again. As a result, these operations, begun as temporary solutions to a specifics problem–the Kurds huddled unwelcome on the Turkish mountain sides–became a long-term commitment from which the United States could not extricate itself as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power. In the end, the only “solution” was to overthrow the Iraqi regime–in other words, the Iraq War. Were Saddam still in power, Operations Northern/Southern Watch might well be close to “celebrating” their 20th anniversary.
Is that what we’re looking for in Libya? Of course not, but one can argue that, well, a no-fly zone is just a temporary expedient that will only last until Gaddafi is finally kicked out of power. Right? But the Iraqi precedent is not comforting: Provide Comfort was envisioned to provide “temporary” comfort, not 12 years worth of effort, as it eventually did. What if Gaddafi does not fall? Are those enforcing the no-fly zone as stuck as the United States was? Or do we all have to invade and conquer Libya?
Maybe an open-ended commitment is exactly what the advocates of a Libyan no-fly zone have in mind. If so, they should admit that and see if enthusiasm for the idea is as great as it currently seems to be. If so, fine. If not, it would be better to know up front what one may be getting one’s self into over the Libyan desert. That is the lesson of Provide Comfort/Northern/Southern Watch.