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Don't exaggerate Arab support for Libya No Fly Zone

The approval by the Arab League of a No-Fly Zone for Libya, combined with increasingly urgent appeals from the Libyan opposition and some Arab voices, has helped build support for an international and American move in that direction. I am just leaving the Al-Jazeera Forum in Doha, where I had the opportunity to discuss this question in depth with a wide range of Arab opinion leaders and political activists as well as several leading Libyan opposition representatives (see this excellent post by Steve Clemons from the same conference). There is both more and less to this Arab support than meets the eye. Arabs are indeed deeply concerned about the bloody stalemate in Libya, and want international action. But if that action takes military form, including the kind of bombing would actually be required to implement a No-Fly Zone, I suspect that the narrative would rapidly shift against the United States.

While Arab public opinion should not be the sole consideration in shaping American decisions on this difficult question, Americans also should not fool themselves into thinking that an American military intervention will command long-term popular Arab support. Every Arab opinion leader and Libyan representative I spoke with at the conference told me that "American military intervention is absolutely unacceptable." Their support for a No Fly Zone rapidly evaporates when discussion turns to American bombing campaigns. This tracks with what I see in the Arab media and the public conversation. As urgently as they want the international community to come to the aid of the Libyan people, The U.S. would be better served focusing on rapid moves toward non-military means of supporting the Libyan opposition.

The deep concern for Libya is real, intense, and passionate. Arab activists and opinion leaders repeatedly warned that if Qaddafi survives it could mean the death of the Arab revolutionary moment. This is part of the wider identification across the unified Arab political space which has palpably emerged among young activists and mass publics. This includes Bahrain, by the way, where the intervention by GCC security forces against the protestors has had a comparable chilling effect even if it has received less coverage on al-Jazeera than has Libya. There is no question that most Arabs desperately want something to be done to save Libya from Qaddafi, and that this is seen as having broad and deep regional implications.

When it comes to military intervention, however, this deep identification with the Libyan protestors intersects uncomfortably with the enduring legacy of Iraq. The prospect of an American military intervention, no matter how just the cause, triggers deep suspicion. There is a vanishingly small number of Arab takers for the bizarre American conceit that the invasion of Iraq has somehow been vindicated. The invasion and occupation of Iraq remains a gaping wound in the Arab political consciousness which has barely scabbed over. Any direct American military presence in Libya would be politically catastrophic, even if requested by the Libyan opposition and given Arab League cover.

A No-Fly Zone with Arab and UN cover would be more palatable, if controversial, but any serious analysis must take into account the likelihood that it would not work and would only pave the way to more direct military action. While I supported it early on, I have learned much from the debate which has ensued. I understand and sympathize with the moral urgency to do something for Libya.  But that should not blind us to the costs and risks of a no-fly zone and the limited prospects that it would tip the balance.  It isn't a costless, easy alternative to war... it is more likely the preface to deeper military involvement.  I am frankly baffled that anyone would take seriously the clamoring of inveterate hawks to ignore the reservations of the military and jump into another ill-considered military adventure in the Middle East. Listening to assurances that military action will be smooth and cheap, with no complications and with great Arab support brings back all the bad memories of 2002. Discussing a No-Fly Zone means discussing the possibility of military invasion. Anything else is irresponsible.

That doesn't mean the U.S. should do nothing. The administration should move quickly and aggressively to recognize the provisional Libyan government, release the frozen Libyan assets to that provisional government, and allow the flow of weapons to them. It should push for ever tighter targeted sanctions against Qaddafi, and continue to mobilize international consensus against his regime to make sure that he remains an absolute pariah without access to international institutions, revenues, or support. It could jam Qaddafi's communications and provide intelligence, and more. The debate should move away from an exclusive focus on military action. That is a dead end where we have been before, and should not be going again.

Flickr Creative Commons, March 12, 2011

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