After massive popular opposition forced the departure of two long-serving authoritarian presidents in Arab countries, the governments of Bahrain and Libya responded immediately and brutally to protests challenging their control. Now, unlike Bahrain, Libya has fallen into open civil war. The excessive violence against protesters by Muammar Gaddafi's forces, including the use of air power against civilians, has triggered the rebellion of much of the country and the defection of many military officers to the side of the rebels. Libyan rebels now control the majority of the country, Gaddafi has limited control outside of the capital and his tribal stronghold of Sirt, and most of the military has not committed itself to Gaddafi's defense. Given time, the rebels seem poised to overthrow Gaddafi without outside help. Unfortunately for them and for the United States, American interventionists on the left and right have found in Libya's crisis an opportunity to revive their discredited policy doctrines of the past decade.
As the fighting in Libya has continued, editorial boards, pundits, and quite a few politicians from both parties have been virtually unanimous in calling for direct U.S. and European action against Gaddafi. Some of the demands have been unremarkable, such as freezing the Gaddafi family’s assets, providing humanitarian aid, re-imposing sanctions, and expelling Libya from the U.N. Human Rights Council it should never have been on in the first place. All of those things can and should be done, and some have already happened. But they change nothing in Libya, and there's no reason to expect that the United States or the European Union will entangle themselves in an internal Libyan conflict. One demand has become as common as it is unwise: the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya, which would almost certainly have to be imposed and enforced by U.S. and NATO forces.
The political advantage of calling for a no-fly zone is that it maintains the pretense of not becoming directly involved in the conflict while still favoring the rebels. But there shouldn’t be any illusions about what this policy would mean. It would involve a significant commitment of already-limited military resources to an open-ended policing of Libyan airspace, and it would inevitably evolve into a broader military mission requiring the targeting of Gaddafi's ground forces. A no-fly zone would simply be a prelude to more aggressive action against Gaddafi's forces, and it would represent the start of a prolonged commitment by the United States and others to Libya. All of this would mean actively siding with rebels whose goals other than overthrowing Gaddafi we don't know, and it would complicate a conflict that the rebels seem to be winning without Western support.
Fortunately, a no-fly zone appears to be a non-starter. While the administration continues to list imposing it as a possible option, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen already dismissed the idea of NATO intervention, insisting such action would require approval by the U.N. Security Council. NATO member Italy has a treaty with Libya that it has suspended, but the terms of the treaty may still prevent Italy from allowing its territory to be used during a military operation against Libya. Permanent Council members Russia and China are never eager to authorize collective action against other states, as they usually see interventions as threatening infringements on state sovereignty.
The liberal interventionist idea of the "responsibility to protect" becomes meaningless if the United Nations will not authorize collective action. Of course, NATO intervention in Kosovo had no legal justification and no U.N. approval, and the Iraqi no-fly zones set up in the 1990s likewise had no specific U.N. authorization. But the Obama administration seems less likely to launch a military operation in Libya if it does not have broad international support and legality. We should remember that the no-fly zones in Iraq devolved into a decade-long air war that paved the way for the later invasion of Iraq, and the Kosovo intervention brought an end to Serbian control of the province only to deliver it into the hands of a criminal gang in the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Given the considerable military burdens the U.S. and NATO are already bearing in Iraq and Afghanistan, the serious fiscal problems that our government faces, and the American public's view that the United States should refrain from getting involved in Arab political crises, the United States does not need and shouldn't seek a more direct role in the Libyan civil war. Anti-Gaddafi Libyans appear to be capable of removing the dictator on their own. We in the West should be willing to acknowledge when our involvement is not needed or wanted.