A few days ago, I casually–too casually–suggested that a no-fly zone over Libya might not be a bad idea if Muammar Qaddafi started using air power against his people. It’s still possible that a no-fly zone might be a good idea, but the decision deserves a lot more informed consideration than I gave it. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointed out, a no-fly zone would have to commence with an attack on Qaddafi’s air defense system. And that’s a problem: an attack of any sort could set off a chain of unintended consequences. Qaddafi has mustard gas. Qaddafi has all sorts of scary weapons, as the estimable Chris Chivers points out in the Times today–especially stingers, which can be sold on the black market…and perhaps used against U.S. helicopters in Afghanistan. (We’ve been very lucky–a lot luckier than the Russians were–since the Taliban haven’t had access to stingers…so far.)
A second problem with my initial position is a common one to journalists and, all too often, government officials: extrapolation. We don’t know very much about the internal dynamics of Libya, so we tend to see through the lens of what’s been happening recently to its neighbors, Egypt and Tunisia. Ah, people power! Ah, freedom! Except we don’t have any idea, really, how Egypt and Tunisia are going to turn out. And Libya is different from both, when you dig down a bit: it has a unique tribal structure, which Qaddafi had been able to master–and which is in flux right now. A long-term civil war, caused by shifting tribal alliances, is not out of the question. We know Qaddafi is a murderous, brutal lunatic. We don’t know much about his opponents, who could turn out to be every bit as thuggish and a lot more religious.
As I said, a no-fly zone, imposed multilaterally, with NATO taking the lead, might well be the right answer, especially if large-scale slaughter seems to be taking place. But, for the moment, we should probably keep our powder dry and stick to humanitarian aid, where requested. And we should stay humble: we really don’t know much about these societies (not even Iraq, after years of mucking about there), about how they work internally to re-establish equilibrium after the shock of an invasion or a revolution, and we don’t have very much control over that process. The question David Petraeus asked, as his troops launched into Iraq in March of 2003, is still the big one: We’re still wondering how this ends.