Viewpoint: Libya intervention 'brings huge risks'

Libyans protest against the Gaddafi government in Benghazi, 10 March

As debate continues over whether the international community should intervene in Libya, in particular by imposing a no-fly zone, Washington commentator Steve Clemons argues that such a move could bring enormous political risks for little return.

In Libya, a lethally unbalanced leader has decided not to reform his government or heed the calls of his public that he should have been term-limited out long ago, but instead has bombed, machine-gunned, and rolled tanks out against his own citizens.

A deadly, serious struggle is under way in Libya and throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa between ageing authoritarian regimes and their citizens who have had enough of institutionalised human degradation.

Americans and the "West" want to help; they want to stop those bombs falling on innocents from the sky and protect the brave protesters fighting hard for their rights and futures. Americans see their own narrative of revolution and throwing off tyranny in these on-going al-Jazeera and BBC streams.

But as noble as the notion of helping the Libyan opposition may feel and sound, the American impulse to help, to impose with allies a "no-fly zone", changes the narrative of protest and change in Libya and sets up a dynamic that could easily backfire on America's interests and reputation. It could also rob success from those seeking to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

From a purely logistical and military standpoint, a no-fly zone achieves little in undermining Col Gaddafi's military capacity and yet requires large costs and a large military footprint to succeed.

Image caption Implementing a no-fly zone could be a high-risk, low-return tactic

The Libyan opposition has asked for a no-fly zone, but also asked that there be no introduction of weapons or radar systems inside Libya's borders and no soldiers.

This is a non-starter. The systems required to maintain on-going surveillance and interdiction of aircraft are considerable and cannot all be run from near-docked ships and from Nato's military base in southern Italy.

A no-fly zone would require the "dismantlement" of anti-aircraft capacity that Libya has on hand and would probably require some military strikes against aircraft that Col Gaddafi has access to.

The no-fly zone would probably have no impact on helicopters, tanks, and infantry units - but it would require on-going, continuous overflights by Awacs surveillance aircraft and armed fighter jets.

A no-fly zone is popular because it scratches an emotional nerve of those wanting to help stop a dictator terrorising people from the skies, but it's a very high-cost, low-return tactic - that may have even more enormous political risks attached.

Western 'crusade'

The bigger issue of concern about the rush to impose a possible no-fly zone is that it will "change the frame" in the Middle East.

Image caption Col Gaddafi has cast himself as Libya's defender against the West

The story will no longer be the educated, the social network-connected, the aspiring youth rising up to say they are done with the corrupt, rotting terms of the social contract between government and the governed in these countries, the story becomes: what is the West doing now?

What are the level of forces and degree of intervention the US and allies in Europe will pour into Libya and subsequent hot spots? Is this all about oil and energy again?

The cameras would leave the protesters and move to visuals of aircraft carriers and foreign, mostly white, mostly Christian soldiers on yet another "crusade" for Western values in the Middle East. That would be the narrative that would take flight in the Arab media and in the Arab mind.

Part of the rhetoric Muammar Gaddafi used to maintain his authoritarian grip on power and to knock back rivals was to wrap himself in the cloak of defender of the state and defender of Libya's revolution from the meddling of neo-colonial Western powers.

To institute a no-fly zone gives Col Gaddafi a door back to that narrative - a door that Barack Obama has kept securely closed by working so hard to getting an international consensus against the Libyan leader's use of violence against his own people.

The US succeeded in getting a tight voice of concern and condemnation from around the world but also the African Union and Arab League. This was an enormous and important accomplishment that helped isolate Col Gaddafi regionally and geostrategically.

Establishing a no-fly zone gives Col Gaddafi the narrative he needs to escape his isolation and to begin reconnecting with a people who have in their minds decades of humiliation and disregard from the West.

The invasion of Iraq, hugely unpopular in the Arab world, has planted seeds of distrust that will grow large if US and Nato warships and planes are deployed in their country.

Right now, the Arab League and the African Union both oppose the imposition of a no-fly zone, and China would probably veto the needed resolution calling for a no-fly zone in the UN Security Council.

'Undermine the people'

Thus, the political downsides coupled with the reality that such a no-fly zone would do little to change the military equation in what is looking increasingly like a serious civil war, are very significant and have serious, regional repercussions.

Image caption Rebel forces are not as well equipped as soldiers loyal to Col Gaddafi

The strategy that seems more sensible and measured and that supports those fighting against Col Gaddafi could include air lifting supplies of water, food, shelter and medicine to the impacted refugee camps on the border towns between Libya and Egypt and Tunisia respectively - but also to those inside the areas now controlled by opposition forces.

The sophisticated surveillance capacity that the US and allies have in the region could be turned into actionable intelligence passed on to the Libyan opposition. Others, preferably not the US, could help move armaments and weapons supplies to the rebels.

Mr Obama has been very careful to emphasise that the US wants to see violence neither on the side of the protesters nor from the government; wants the universal rights of people to assemble and protest protected; and wants governments to reform quickly and to make the social contracts inside their country more healthy and inclusive.

These are the right, somewhat low-bar goals in the region - but to move beyond this modest but relatively practical framework requires that the US and allies have the ability to determine the course and outcomes in this region-wide storm of protest.

US power to manipulate the course of events in any of these impacted nations is peripheral to what the people can achieve on their own. Some, as in Egypt, may succeed. Others, as in Iran, will have to keep trying and may not succeed.

Last week, al-Jazeera Director General Wadah Khanfar spoke at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California, before some of America's most successful entrepreneurs.

He said that we were seeing change in the region driven by a new generation of people who won't accept the old deals, and they were achieving what everyone once thought impossible - "without foreign intervention".

If the US and Nato change the frame and take the cameras away from the people, no matter how well-meaning the intention, we help undermine the very people we purport to help.

Steve Clemons is founder and senior fellow of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publisher of the political blog, The Washington Note.