Who will police Libya's sky?

Neil Macdonald on Washington's tough bargaining position regarding a no-fly zone over Libya.

There's talk everywhere this week about the American duty to set up a no-fly zone over Moammar Gadhafi's Libya. Let's be clear about a few things.

One is that it's impossible to argue the U.S.-led military campaign in 1999 did not save thousands of Kosovar Muslims from the murderous intent of Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian henchmen.

It is certainly debatable, however, whether the Americans, who had no real strategic interest in the matter — unlike the neighbouring Europeans, who did little than cluck disapproval until Washington prodded them into the coalition — ever received much in the way of credit or thanks from Muslims worldwide.

Kosovars may be grateful to this day, but in the rest of the Muslim world Washington's timely barrage of fighter jets did little if anything to change the widely held view of America as a modern-day crusader/imperialist/colonialist oil-robbing force of infidel evil. Take your pick.

The same goes for Somalia in 1992.

Once again, with no strategic interest at stake, Washington organized a military intervention, principally to shield Muslim Somalis from starvation and violence inflicted by their own warring militias.

Certainly, that campaign saved Somali lives. The highlight, though, was an American soldier's corpse being dragged and abused in the streets of Mogadishu after a U.S. helicopter was downed.

Again, little credit, or sympathy, was forthcoming from the wider Muslim/Arab world.

The Arab League requests

Then came the events of 2001.

I remember the huge crowds that took to the streets in the West Bank and Gaza to celebrate the 9/11 attacks, despite the fact that the U.S. contributes more aid to the Palestinian people than does any other nation, by far.

Once friends, Amr Moussa, the long-serving secretary general of the Arab League, talks to reporters in Sirte, Libya, in October 2010. Five months later, the league wants the world to intervene militarily in Libya's revolt. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

So, if the Americans now seem uninterested in launching and enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, as much of the rest of the world has been asking for, why would anyone be surprised?

The latest call for the no-fly zone came last week from the Arab League itself of all places. For the past few days the UN Security Council has been seized with the debate.

For nearly all its 65-year existence, the league has been staunchly anti-interventionist, not to mention resistant to chastising any of its members for human rights' abuses. Perhaps because human rights' abuses are a tool of governance in most Arab states.

This month, though, frightened and befuddled by the pro-democracy protests erupting throughout their world, Arab League members decided to confront Libya's erratic leader, Moammar Gadhafi, head on.

He had gone too far, even for the taste of his fellow autocrats, bombing and strafing his own people from the air, unleashing tanks on them in their own cities.

Plus, Gadhafi has been a pain in the Arab League's collective backside for too long. He'd ridiculed them repeatedly and publicly. 

Very concerned

In announcing the league's endorsement of a no-fly zone last weekend, the league's long-serving secretary-general, Amr Moussa, pronounced the organization deeply concerned about the safety of Libyan citizens.

The league didn't offer to set up or patrol the zone itself, of course, even though some of its members, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have air forces.

No, that should be left to the rest of the world. Meaning, of course, the United States.

This endorsement, Oman's foreign minister, Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah made clear, should in no way be seen as an invitation to protect the protesters of, say, Bahrain or Yemen, who are also currently being gunned down by their own security forces.

"We refuse any foreign intervention in any Arab affairs," he stressed.

If this all seems a bit rich, that's because it is. This is the same league whose members have so often made meals out of denouncing American militarism over the years.

They're also the same bunch that lavishly welcomed Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to their summit in 2009, after he'd been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court for atrocities in Darfur.

Back then, Amr Moussa made a great show of having coffee with Bashir, just to emphasize the league's solidarity with a valued member.

France and Britain

Despite the history here, the French and British governments jumped keenly on the Arab League's endorsement of a no-fly zone, although the Europeans showed little interest in setting one up by themselves.

Fast friends. Libya's Moammar Gaddafi welcomes Sudan's Omar Hassan al-Bashir to the Arab League meeting in Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte in March 2010. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

The Americans, though, were cool. Imagine that.

In fact, infuriating his European allies, President Barack Obama has insisted that any such action must be done according to international norms, which means under the slow-moving auspices of the UN Security Council.

This of course is something the Europeans used to criticize George W. Bush for not doing.

Obama, you will remember, came to power promising to change Bush's unilateralist policies. In fact, it is probably the main reason Obama possesses the Nobel Peace Prize.

But Obama is also under attack here at home, from the left and the right. Some prominent members of his own party, and several left-leaning columnists, have portrayed a no-fly zone over Libya as a humanitarian duty.

Meanwhile, conservatives, always eager to export U.S. values, see it as a potentially "low-cost win for democracy," as the talk-show heads have been putting it.

"We will have looked feckless in the face of the people's cry for their liberty," Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute told me this week, as Gadhafi was crushing the rebels.

"We had the opportunity and means to have a very different outcome, so we are not absolved of the outcome."

Never mind that enforcing a no-fly zone would first involve extensive bombing runs to knock out Libyan air defences on the ground, as U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates pointed out.

Just at a guess, American bombardment of an Arab country, no matter how well-intentioned, would not be welcomed by the Arab street in the long run, whether it was endorsed by their own despots or not.

Here's how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it to Congress a few days ago: "It's easy for people to say 'Do this, do that,' and then turn and say 'OK, U.S., go do it.' And YOU take the consequences if something bad happens."

Which, almost certainly, something would.

So, behind closed doors at the UN Security Council this week, the Americans have been insisting that Arab League endorsement is not enough — that Arab nations will actually have to participate if the no-fly zone idea is going to fly, so to speak. And, possibly, participate in attacks on Libyan forces, if that becomes necessary.

Of course, by now, given the relentless onslaught by Gadhafi's forces, things may be too late. But given history, the American conditions are hardly unreasonable.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.