Here we go again

And things were just starting to look up.

And things were just starting to look up.

Yes folks, we’re back. Ten years, two wars and here we are—getting involved again. Libya is steeped in civil war, and the NATO allies have spearheaded a military intervention to rid the world of evil, and stop Muammar Qaddafi’s forces before the whole mess turns into a humanitarian disaster. Good for us.

This event raises a number of important issues. How did this happen? What will happen next? Should we be there? What happens if we aren’t? What about the 4,972 other crucial international issues that America is obligated to throw money or missiles at?

For another day. Today, boys and girls, I’d like to discuss the newest media buzzword, which I’m sure you’ve experienced ad nauseum over the last few days: the No-Fly Zone.

What, pray tell, is a No-Fly Zone? Does it hurt?

No-Fly Zones (NFZ) are essentially just that—a militarily-imposed restriction against a country using its aircrafts for whatever dastardly deeds its leaders may be scheming up. There’s more to it than that, obviously. Let’s break it down.

First things first. You can’t impose a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) without the big guns to back it up. That’s where your cruise missiles, like the ship-borne Tomahawk, make their debut. You wouldn’t send your F-15E fighter jets into country that still had the means to bring them down, would you? Of course you wouldn’t. In Libya, over a hundred such missiles were launched from American warships, all but erasing the Qaddafi regime’s ability to coordinate its air defenses.

Step two. You send in those big, bad F-15’s to patrol the skies. They’ll keep a presence, deal with any pesky enemy fighters you run into along the way, maybe even knock out a few enemy ground forces when they clutter together. If you’re NATO, and the enemy is an Arab dictatorship, you’re probably marveling at how easy this all has been.

Step three. So you’ve taken out the air defenses. You’ve deftly turned the vaunted enemy air fleet into so many piles of debris and sadness. You’ve done a handy job of proving to the world, once again, of just what it means to take on NATO in conventional warfare. Give yourself a pat on the back, have a glass of wine, and rejoice. The easy part’s over.

Step four. Keep those birds running until things settle down. In other words, keep pumping that fuel, building those bombs and spending that money. For how long, you ask? That depends, responds the disembodied voice of wisdom. The most significant American-led NFZ in recent memory was over Iraqi airspace, following the 1990 Gulf War. That one lasted about 12 years, ending in March of 2003. The rest is history.

NFZ objectives tend to be limited in their scope, because—and there is really no way around this—a NFZ is generally a form of stopgap measure, a small, tactical component of a far grander strategy of a much bigger campaign. In other words, a quick fix until we think of something better, or we get lucky and Mr. Qaddafi suddenly and unexpectedly succumbs to a fatal bout of the runs.

There are a ton of tactical objectives that, put simply, an NFZ simply can’t manage. Protecting civilians, for instance.

The problem with an NFZ, you see, is that it covers quite a lot of air, and not all aircrafts are up to the task. It’s next to impossible for, say, a jet like the F-15E to bring down a relatively low-flying attack helicopter, of which Colonel Qaddafi has approximately 35 and is very keen to use against his own people. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence that Qaddafi has or will use fighter jets to attack civilians, so how an NFZ contributes to this goal is beyond me.

And that’s not all. I don’t like making predictions, so I won’t. But here’s a little observation, or food for thought, if you will. NFZ’s have a notoriously dismal track record when it comes to regime change. Stubborn dictators, as any citizen of a dictatorship would tell you before he gets shot for subversive activity, are a force to be reckoned with.

To seize control of constitutional governments, as Colonel Qaddafi and Saddam Husain did, requires a certain penchant for survivability. The sanctions era of Ira throughout the 1990s did nothing to diminish the Iraqi dictator’s power. On the contrary, economic isolation and foreign intervention increased his control of Iraq’s domestic resources, and encouraged the conflict-weary population to flock to the local strongman.

Whether this would happen in Libya is difficult to say. There was no civil war to speak of in Iraq prior to the 2003 American-led invasion, nor was there any rebel force to which to give aid. Libya has not, as Iraq had been, forced to pay immense reparations for war crimes. Whether the similarities or the differences will win out in the end is something we’ll all have to wait for. But, as is so sadly frequent in this troubled corner of the world, the future looks grim. ?