Questions For Advocates Of A Libyan No-Fly Zone

Thomas Ricks has a few questions for those who advocate a largely U.S. led no-fly zone over Libya:

1. Imposing a no-fly zone is an act of war. For example, it would require attacking Qaddafi’s air defense systems-not just anti-aircraft guns and missile batteries, but also radar and communications systems. We may also need some places out in the desert to base helicopters to pick up downed fliers. So, first question: Do we want to go to war with Qaddafi?

2. Hmmm, another American war in an Arab state –– what’s not to like?

3. How long are we willing to continue this state of war? What if we engage in an act of war, and he prevails against the rebels? Do we continue to fight him, escalate — or just slink away? And what do we do about aircrews taken prisoner?

4. And if we are going to go to war with his government, why not just try to finish the job quickly and conduct air strikes against him and his infrastructure? In this sense, a no-fly zone is a half measure, which generally is a bad idea in war. Why risk going to war and losing? That is, if we are willing to do air strikes, why not go the whole way and use ground troops now to go in and topple a teetering regime? I actually would prefer this option.

Finally, Ricks calls into question the meme that has floated recently that the success of the Iraqi no-fly zones offers a lesson for Libya:

The Iraqi no-fly zones are not a good precedent to cite. I actually went out and looked at the operation of the northern no-fly zone in October of 2000. I came away thinking that one reason that no American aircraft were shot down in the Iraqi no-fly zones was because Saddam Hussein really did not want to-that is, he did not want to provoke America. The anti-aircraft shots that were taken were wide on purpose. A better parallel might be Serbia, which (aided by a smart Hungarian national who now is a baker) managed to down an F-117 stealth fighter aircraft in March 1999 with an SA-3 anti-aircraft missile.

I would suggest that until we have good answers to the questions listed above, and until we have both a good entry and exit strategy, that anyone advocating intervention in Libya should be laughed off the public stage

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. There’s also the fact that Iraq’s air force and air defense system was pretty far neutered during the First Gulf War.

  2. Steven Plunk says:

    Laughing anyone off the stage is juvenile. Debate the issue and listen to all arguments. I’m not sure what the right course of action is but laughing at people doesn’t advance ideas.

  3. 1. Along with some other countries who have motioned towards potentially helping with a no-fly zone – YES. We can stop the slaughter of thousands with minimal risk on our end, and befriend rank and file democratic leaning uprising types around the work. Worth the risk.

    2. Afghanistan was a war we needed to get into. Iraq was a stupid idea from the get go. In this case, we have a narrow parameter, just like we did in Bosnia, which is a lot more comparable to this than Iraq. We stopped a slaughter there. We can do it here.

    3. Only military commanders can answer these questions. No armchair general could possibly have enough information.

    4. Depending on the makeup of the opposition, I might actually be for a more wide ranging air campaign, ala Bosnia/Serbia, but there is a huge jump between enforcing a no fly zone and sending in the Marines. Risk skyrockets exponentially, to far too much.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Funny you should post this since I was drafting a list of questions of my own. I may post them yet. Included would be

    – under what authority would we go to war with Libya (establishing a no-fly zone is an act of war)
    – what sort of aircraft would we be stopping? Jets? Helicopters? Small aircraft?
    – what would the objective be?
    – oust Qaddafi? His regime? Side with the rebels?
    – prevent Qaddafi and his regime from using air attacks against protestors and rebels? (didn’t work very well against Saddam)
    – would a no-fly zone make it more or less likely that Qaddafi would use chemical weapons against protestors?
    – where would we have this no-fly zone? (remember: Libya is four time the size of Iraq)

    and others.

  5. Ben Wolf says:

    There is absolutely no precedent for American military intervention which did not yield to mission creep. It might start as a limited no-fly zone, but it will not end there.

  6. Steve Anthony says:

    The potential for good must be weighed–saving lives and promoting democracy. The U.S. could be appearing indifferent as it is now; this perception on the Arab Street isn’t helping our interests.

    No-fly zone and naval blockades could be enough to end the revolt successfully.

    We need to be on the right side of Libya, as we were in Egypt. It is not in the U.S. long-term interest to allow the Quaddafi regime to survive.