By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: March 9, 2011
“This is a pretty easy problem, for crying out loud.”
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Nicholas D. Kristof
For all the hand-wringing in Washington about a no-fly zone over Libya, that’s the verdict of Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff. He flew more than 6,000 hours, half in fighter aircraft, and helped oversee no-fly zones in Iraq and the Adriatic, and he’s currently mystified by what he calls the “wailing and gnashing of teeth” about imposing such a zone on Libya.
I called General McPeak to get his take on a no-fly zone, and he was deliciously blunt:
“I can’t imagine an easier military problem,” he said. “If we can’t impose a no-fly zone over a not even third-rate military power like Libya, then we ought to take a hell of a lot of our military budget and spend it on something usable.”
He continued: “Just flying a few jets across the top of the friendlies would probably be enough to ground the Libyan Air Force, which is the objective.”
General McPeak added that there would be no need to maintain 24/7 coverage over Libya. As long as the Libyan Air Force knew that there was some risk of interception, its pilots would be much less motivated to drop bombs and more inclined to defect.
“If we can’t do this, what can we do?” he asked, adding: “I think it would have a real impact. It might change their calculation of who might come out on top. Just the mere announcement of this might have an impact.”
Along with a no-fly zone, another important step would be to use American military aircraft to jam Libyan state television and radio propaganda and Libyan military communications. General McPeak said such jamming would be “dead easy.”
As he acknowledged, any intervention also has unforeseeable risks, and, frankly, it’s a good thing when a president counts to 10 before taking military action. But I hope that President Obama isn’t counting to a googolplex.
The secretary of defense, Robert Gates, has said that a no-fly zone would be “a big operation in a big country” and would begin with an attack on Libyan air defense systems. But General McPeak said that the no-fly zone would be imposed over those parts of the country that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi doesn’t control. That may remove the need to take out air defense systems pre-emptively, he said. And, in any case, he noted that the United States operated a no-fly zone over Iraq for more than a decade without systematically eradicating all Iraqi air defense systems in that time.
If the Obama administration has exaggerated the risks of a no-fly zone, it seems to have downplayed the risks of continued passivity. There is some risk that this ends up like the abortive uprisings in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, or in southern Iraq in 1991.
The tide in Libya seems to have shifted, with the Qaddafi forces reimposing control over Tripoli and much of western Libya. Now Colonel Qaddafi is systematically using his air power to gain ground even in the east. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an arms analysis group in London, noted this week, “The major advantage of the pro-regime forces at the moment is their ability to deploy air power.”
I’m chilled by a conversation I just had by phone with a Libyan friend with military connections who has been candid in the past. In our latest conversation, he sounded as if our conversation was being closely monitored, and he praised Colonel Qaddafi to the skies. I can’t tell whether he believed that or had a gun pointed to his head. Either way, his new tone is an indication that the government has the upper hand now in Tripoli.
Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told me that he tends to favor a no-fly zone — along with the jamming of communications — as soon as is practical. “The last thing you want is a 20-year debate on who lost this moment for the Libyan people,” Mr. Kerry noted.
I was a strong opponent of the Iraq war, but this feels different. We would not have to send any ground troops to Libya, and a no-fly zone would be executed at the request of Libyan rebel forces and at the “demand” of six Arab countries in the gulf. The Arab League may endorse the no-fly zone as well, and, ideally, Egypt and Tunisia would contribute bases and planes or perhaps provide search-and-rescue capabilities.
“I don’t think it's particularly constructive for our long-term strategic interests, as well as for our values, to say Qaddafi has to go,” Senator Kerry told me, “and then allow a delusional, megalomaniacal, out-of-touch leader to use mercenaries to kill his people.”
So let’s remember the risks of inaction — and not psych ourselves out. For crying out loud.
For crying out loud this is the best opportunity to improve the American image in the Arab world and more importantly to save those poor Libyans who are killed by the crazy Qaddafi. For the mission itself the Libyan people should promise to pay every penny spent by the American troops and any causality or injury. We know that the Saudi paid a lot to America billions of dollars to outset Saddam and many of Saudi and Arab do not know. Time for the west to despise the Arab tyrants publicly like they despise them in their hearts.