The gesture politics of a no-fly zone

Does yesterday’s UN Security Council resolution authorising a no-fly zone and other military measures matter? With Gaddafi’s back already against the wall, it raises the stakes and generates some credibility for Western pressure – but I remain to be convinced that it will amount to much.

My scepticism boils down to this: that Western societies really are willing to suffer casualties in the defense of strangers in faraway lands.

In all the talk of a no-fly zone over the past ten days, even those most keen on it, such as the UK, have underlined the limits of their commitment – no “boots on the ground”. There may be practical reasons for this, not least ongoing commitments in Afghanistan, but this caution seems as much to reflect an unwillingness to put British, French or American lives at stake where interests are not defined in terms of ‘national security’. Security Council Resolution 1973 reflects this in its approval of military action “while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”.

This is not so much an ‘Iraq syndrome’ as it is still a Somalia one – how committed are the UK and France to continuing military action if a British or French pilot is shot down and captured or killed in the course of air strikes or enforcing a no-fly zone? My suspicion is ‘not very much’, even if I am happy to be proved wrong in events to come. The no-fly zone policy is itself an indicator of this – action that is as low-risk as possible to protect British and French lives. A decade ago, in Kosovo, the result of this reluctance was air operations at higher altitudes, with less accuracy and diminishing effectiveness.

So what is exactly the endgame here? If it is indeed regime change and toppling Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, the reluctance of the Obama administration over the last two weeks, even at a no-fly zone, is well-justified. Air capabilities alone are not decisive in terms of territorial control. Will boots on the ground have to follow? In the enthusiastic manner in which Britain and France have pinned their colours to the Libyan rebels’ mast, is a climbdown possible should a stalemated civil war emerge? Reputational costs, not least in the form of domestic political credibility, aren’t insignificant is trying to see how far international pressure will go.

But I doubt we’ll get to any substantial stage of direct intervention. On the ‘abstension’ side of the UNSC resolution ledger sit China, Russia, Germany, Brazil and India, all of whom are more likely than not to tip into an outright ‘no’ if the request comes for intervention involving an occupation. Some basic norms limiting the use of force still hold. We haven’t all become liberal interventionists overnight.

Let me be clear by way of a conclusion: I’m not against intervention. In fact, I think that I’d favour a robust, muscular intervention – but in a way that has one’s eyes wide open about the possible consequences for those doing the intervening, including long-term commitments and the prospect of a body count.

But if Libya is being seen as a litmus test for the responsibility to protect, the degree of responsibility that external powers really are willing to shoulder seems pretty ambiguous so far. Pretending that the Gaddafi government will collapse as a result of diplomatic travel bans, frozen bank accounts, an arms embargo and a no-fly zone is a rather convoluted delusion. In these circumstances, the Western willingness to intervene still seems to be a rather half-hearted one – and when it comes to intervention and addressing how to wield military force internationally, a half-hearted intervention is perhaps worse than no intervention at all.

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3 thoughts on “The gesture politics of a no-fly zone

  1. Adam says:

    the hypocricy of the GCC’s position re: Bahrain irks me. Will be interestign to see Al Jazeera’s coverage of Bahrain crisis over the coming weeks too.

  2. […] the UN resolution authorising a no-fly zone was agreed in March, I expressed scepticism that Western publics really were willing to bear the cost of war. My thought then was concerned with the ‘body bag effect’ of  Western military […]

  3. […] to oust Colonel Gaddafi and not just a change of leader, but wholesale regime change? I’ve previously pointed to the confusion about the ends of the NATO campaign, and the problem here is that Western justifications for […]

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