A necessary attack, now for the really tricky bit
What next in Libya? The initial demonstration of strength we saw yesterday is really just the beginning. (Follow live updates here.)
As US Defence Secretary Gates has rightly observed “a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences”. This underscores the inevitability of escalation for which a no-fly zone has set the scene, one way or another.
Even if Gaddafi, out of character, orders his aircraft or ground installations not to engage the foreign forces from here on, or they revolt out of fear or relief, that is not the end of it.
Any military operation requires strict adherence to what are called Rules of Engagement (RoE) that determine the instances in which force can be used. At its most rudimentary level this is often “don’t fire unless fired upon” and in the instance of a no-fly zone includes sufficient numbers of warning to any unauthorized aircraft.
But these rules rarely account for moral considerations that an individual soldier – or pilot – might encounter.
For example, an aircraft policing a no-fly zone might spot a helicopter gunship mowing down citizens as has been a frequent occurrence during the turmoil. Should that pilot wait to deliver perhaps the required three warnings or should they shoot down the gunship immediately?
What about if a pilot spots an equally horrific massacre of innocent civilians by ground forces? According to the principles of a running not setting up a no-fly zone generally they would be required to stand idly by. But should they? Could they? Would they?
Pilots are humans too and you can expect them to have a human response. The danger is that one overreach on the principles of a no-fly zone compels an escalation in the method of intervention by the Western forces to something more than simply monitoring the skies.
But that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The no-fly zone is a relatively painless first step that is serving as a dramatic warning to the despot leader to back down. Gaddafi’s departure is widely considered the circuit breaker of the situation. And on balance with an American F-18 now occasionally screaming over his palace he is more likely to want to get out of the country.
Ultimately it is a game of risk. Whether it will take a no-fly zone in its current form or an escalation to a full scale air campaign to knock down Gaddafi we don’t know. This is what we saw with Operation Deny Flight, the UN sanctioned no-fly zone imposed over Bosnia between 1993-95, that was expanded to include close air support and coercive air strikes.
But both are much less costly, lengthy, bloody and confronting than a land campaign with troops that would have the sniff of an occupying force and President Obama has rejected outright.
We should remember that at the end of the day, the Libyans themselves were crying out for change and we have a responsibility to not stand idly by as a humanitarian crisis unfolded.
In international affairs there is a widely accepted doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) championed by former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. Under certain conditions the international community has a responsibility to override sovereignty to protect the citizens of other countries from various atrocities.
The UN’s statement two weeks ago on Libya was the strongest ever endorsement of the R2P principle and provided a strong basis for action even if Russia or China had vetoed rather than abstained from the UN vote as long as there was broad consensus in the international community.
The time for sanctions and the freezing of assets long passed with violence only escalating. With a majority of Western citizens evacuated away from fear of reprisal attacks it was about time we took the next step.
Military options should always be a last resort. But realistically what else was there that we could do?
We should remember that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing and hold our breath that Gaddafi will back down soon before any escalation occurs.
Thom Woodroofe can be followed on Twitter @thomwoodroofe
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