The demand for a no-fly zone over Libya appears to be particularly prominent in Europe. In demanding it, however, one should be aware of the consequences.
The current situation in Libya is certainly difficult for European observers: people are fighting a dictator – seen by many (and probably rightly so) as a just cause. The European reaction, and West in general, has so far only reacted by getting its citizens out and, in Britain's case, a team of special forces, intelligence personnel and diplomats in, probably for consultations with protestors. The general perception of "we have to do something" remains unsatisfied. In that light, the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya appears to be an attractive solution: stopping Gaddafi's air strikes on his people, as well as preventing fresh mercenaries from coming into the country.
However, as the German weekly Die Zeit correctly argues, talking about no-fly zones also needs to involve talking about war. While imposing a no-fly zone over Libya is generally within NATO's capabilities, one needs to be clear that such action would first include air strikes against all defensive installations. As the head of the US Central Command, James Mattis, argued:
'You would have to remove the air defense capability, in order to establish the no-fly zone. So it — no illusions here, it would be a military operation. It wouldn’t simply be telling people not to fly airplanes.'
Europe needs to ask itself if it really is capable and willing to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Would Europe send fighter jets to attack targets within Libya and – in the worst case – even accept casualties from airplanes being shot down? At the very least, dangerroom’s David Axe notes that Libya has Africa's largest surface-to-air missile network. Thus, even as Britain and France drafted a resolution imposing no-fly zones Europe should first ask itself: do we really want to take that risk? Or does demanding a no-fly zone imply that the United States is doing the dirty work again? Furthermore, it appears questionable what the imposition of a no-fly zone would actually do to prevent the killings that are going on on the ground.
It is therefore unsurprising that the United States are more reluctant on the topic than European states. Not only are they further away from the scene, which means having to think less about migrants, economic dependency, and oil, but it was clear from the beginning that they would be a key player in imposing such a mechanism. Being involved in Afghanistan and Iraq already brings a heavy burden, getting involved in a third theatre of war therefore appears to be an option for last resort. Therefore, it can probably be seen as a rebuff if the White House chief of staff, William Daley, said:
'Lots of people throw around phrases of 'no-fly zone,' and they talk about it as if it's just a ... videogame or something. Some people who throw that line out have no idea what they're talking about.'
A no-fly zone should still be on the table, but if Europe speaks of it they should also make sure that everyone is aware of the consequences. Being morally right does not seem to be enough in this case. Only if those raising their voices are willing to agree to fight a war and only if this war can be assured to do more good than harm can this be considered a viable option. Currently, it appears, none of this is the case.