Libya's Neighbors Have the Air Power to Impose No-Fly Zone Themselves

Arabs and Europeans are calling for a no-fly zone over Libya. But why should America do the job when those neighbors have ample air power and the responsibility to do it themselves? By Leslie H. Gelb

Sipa / AP Photo

The U.N. has approved a no-fly zone over Libya. But why is that necessary, when Gaddafi's neighbors have ample airpower and the responsibility to do the job themselves? Plus, more differing opinions on the no-fly zone.

The 22-nation Arab League has called for a no-fly zone over Libya. So have Britain and France. They say Libya will become a humanitarian calamity if Col. Muammar Gaddafi isn't stopped now. They say his victory will mean the strategic collapse of all that could be good in the Mideast. But these strategic moralists fail to note one insidious and self-damning fact: They would have no trouble doing the job all by themselves. They possess hundreds upon hundreds of frontline jet fighters and the necessary air bases—in sum, full air superiority over Libya. And now, with the 10-0 vote in the U.N. Security Council, they have full authority to launch that no-fly zone, plus the blessing to take "all necessary action" to protect Libyan rebels.

But if they believed things were so terrible in Libya weeks ago, they could have imposed a no-fly zone then. They have more than enough authority to act now.

Why haven’t they acted? The answer is plain: they didn’t expect the UN Security Council would approve the action. And if it didn’t, they would be relieved of their obligation to act, in their eyes at least. They had to reckon, along with everyone else, that China and Russia would veto the no-fly plan. But those two usual nay-sayers must have been impressed with the Arab League resolution, and perhaps some side understanding with the United States still not known.

Those states pressing for action had to make a second assumption—mainly, if the Security Council did not block action, the burden of taking action to enforce a no-fly zone would fall upon the United States. And Washington just might be coaxed into that role.

There's the ultimate punch line: the United States of America will do it. Boy, the world really has our number. The world knows that we'll buy into one cosmic argument or another. Supporters of the no-fly zone argue that, if it isn't too late, the measure will prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths at Gaddafi's hands. They are right that those deaths would be horrible, but the finger-waving nations could prevent that themselves right now. Then there's the strategic argument: if Washington doesn't intervene fast, Iran will conquer first the Mideast, then the world (not including China). But the rebels in Libya and elsewhere could only despise a Tehran that slaughtered its own rebels less than two years ago.

There's also the democracy argument: if Americans don't help the Libyan "freedom fighters," then all is lost for democracy in Arab lands. So, does that mean because the Libyan rebels lost, that the Bahraini people will cease their pursuit of parliamentary democracy? Not a chance. Will Egyptian democrats abandon their cause whatever happens in Libya? Not a chance.

The Arabs and the Europeans live there, and if they truly see hell coming, they should act, and they can act.

The strategic moralists also warn that if Gaddafi gets away with murder, Arab autocrats will follow suit. Good scare tactic, fellas. But not one of these autocrats is anywhere near as bad as Gaddafi. They will use force, as the Saudis are doing in Bahrain, to protect their interests and their power, whatever Gaddafi's fate. The arguments of the strategic moralists are wanting.

Doubt not that those pushing for a U.N./U.S. no-fly zone can enforce that goal themselves. Libya has less than 200 usable jet fighters of old vintage, flown by pilots who get less than 90 hours practice time yearly. Egypt has first-class F-16s that could pulverize any Libyan opposition. Saudi air power is even more formidable. That is to say nothing of the hundreds of top-grade fighters that London and Paris could deploy to bases in Egypt, Tunisia, or Italy. There would be no contest. Those arguing for a no-fly zone don't need a U.S. aircraft carrier. If the stakes are anywhere near as great as activists claim, they don't need a U.N. Security Council resolution either. Many is the nation that resorted to force without such international blessing. The hypocrisy here is monumental, even by traditional foreign-policy standards of baloney.

President Obama and his team have a herculean task on their hands, dealing with Libya as well as the far more vital rumblings throughout the region. Quite sensibly, they're trying to maneuver Libya's neighbors to assume their rightful and principal responsibilities. The Arabs and the Europeans live there, and if they truly see hell coming, they should act, and they can act. If they do, President Obama will give them proper humanitarian aid and other backup.

The attacks on Obama are grossly unfair—this time. He still needs help, even with the passing of Thursday's U.N. resolution. Instead of blaming him, his critics should line up and with one voice shout this: "Arabs and Europeans, for once, stand up and take the responsibility that is properly yours. Fly your planes to save the Libyan rebels now."

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Editors’ Note: This article was updated to reflect news developments after the U.N. Security Council vote on March 17th.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.