Too Late For a Libyan No-Fly Zone?

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-- Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

Many of war’s most important combat elements — like time and momentum — don’t show up in order-of-battle calculations. That’s why the international dithering over launching a no-fly zone over Libya is now all but OBE — overcome by events — even as France and the Arab League call for one. The U.N.  began discussing the topic in earnest on Monday, even as Muammar Gaddafi’s warplanes continued to pound rebel positions.

With Gaddafi’s forces rolling up rebel enclaves and consolidating recent gains in much of country, all a no-fly zone can do now is preserve the status quo, which favors him and his loyalists. His strengthening hand over the country he has ruled with an iron fist for 42 years reverses the momentum that Libyan rebels had in their revolt’s early days.

After all, if a no-fly zone is placed atop Libya in coming days, all Gaddafi has to do to neuter it is attack dwindling rebel bands with helicopter gunships — far tougher to deter than high-flying warplanes — or with ground units. You can almost hear the debate now underway inside the Pentagon and in foreign capitals: “OK, we can stop him from flying — but can we stop him from killing?” Unfortunately, the answer — not really. Not now. Too late.

Even zone proponent Anne-Marie Slaughter (sometimes names are too apt for words) of Princeton notes in this morning’s New York Times that despite President Obama’s soothing assurance last week that a “noose” was tightening around Gaddafi, it’s really the rebels who are now feeling the rope.

No-fly zones aren’t military campaigns so much as they are an effort by outsiders to tilt the playing field to the advantage of one side. Such zones basically favor the side with momentum, which two weeks ago were those opposed to Gaddafi. A no-fly zone placed atop Libya then would have frozen Gaddafi’s losing position into place and accelerated rebel efforts on the ground.

Just as importantly, it would have signaled to the world that the rebels were growing stronger and that they had real allies in the international community. But over the past week, Gaddafi’s forces have regained the upper hand, shifting momentum his way.

Ironically, by delaying action, the international community has made sure that any no-fly zone now will need to be in place longer — perhaps much longer — than if one had been launched earlier (remember, the decade-long no-fly zones over Iraq only ended when the U.S. invaded in 2003). Even more importantly, a persistent but strategically ineffective no-fly zone will only serve to highlight the international community’s impotence in dealing with such tragedies.

“Recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task,” Obama told an eager audience in Cairo nearly two years ago. “Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.” The international community has averted its gaze and looked away, as Libya’s rebels look skyward, seeking help. Despite Obama-Wan Kenobi’s stirring rhetoric, the Rebel Force is on its own.