Debate Forum 3/15/11

Debate Forum 3/15/11Debate Forum 3/15/11

Is There a Vital U.S. Interest in Aiding the Rebels in Libya?

By Scott Stantis

The Obama administration is grappling with what the U.S. response should be to the growing violence in Libya. Calls are growing for a “no-fly” zone over the country, but a power or coalition of powers willing to enforce one remains unsettled. Over the weekend, the Arab League endorsed the strategy of the international enforcement of a “no-fly” zone to prevent Muammar Gadhafi from using warplanes against protesters. Through a spokesman, the Arab League claimed that “serious crimes and great violations” committed by Gadhafi’s government against his people had stripped him of legitimacy.

The U.S. policy towards Gadhafi’s reign of terror has been slow to develop, leading some to blame the administration for being indecisive. The basic question of what national interest the U.S. has in the outcome of the battle for control of Libya remains elusive.

The anti-Gadhafi rebellion, which began last month in the city of Benghazi, followed an Egypt-style challenging of Gadhafi’s 42-year rule over Libya. The conflict has seen hundreds of civilians, who were mostly unarmed in the beginning, killed by the government. Some of those civilians were killed by the government’s use of airpower. Leaders of the Libyan opposition are pleading to the international community for help against Gadhafi’s air strikes.

Mahmoud Jibril, who is in charge of foreign affairs for the opposition Libyan National Council and a leading member of the Libyan opposition, endorsed the concept of the “no fly” zone. Speaking in Washington, Jibril joined Ali Aujali, the Libyan ambassador to the U.S. who has also joined the opposition. Jibril said, “We are not diplomats now; we are freedom fighters.”  “Our main priority is the ‘no-fly’ zone,” Aujali said, referring to opposition calls for U.S. and NATO to use their warplanes to prevent Gadhafi from using his air power to attack the opposition and civilians.

Although there are now calls for U.S. participation in “no-fly” zone enforcement from many in Congress, including Senators John Kerry and John McCain, there are no guarantees that such an air campaign would have any effect on the outcome of the rebellion. It has been pointed out that a “no-fly” zone is not an antiseptic act. In order to protect the aircraft enforcing the “no-fly” zone, it will be necessary to bomb Libyan government air defenses. Once the defenses were taken out, sustained patrols by SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) aircraft armed with anti-radiation missiles would be poised to rapidly confront any subsequent threat that pops up. Under this umbrella of protection, Gadhafi’s air force could certainly be grounded.

The question becomes at what cost and at what benefit? Those who oppose the U.S. involvement in the “no-fly” zone argue that it has little ability to change the military reality. Opponents point out that even with a “no-fly” zone, Gadhafi would still be difficult for the rebels to defeat, and that Gadhafi might still defeat the rebels. Civilian casualties are another problem with such an air campaign. We could be unintentionally killing the very people we are trying to help. They also ask the question of whether the U.S. really wants to be involved in armed conflict in a third Middle East country.

Those who argue for the action, point out that at least by imposing the “no-fly” zone the U.S. would level the battleground. By preventing Gadhafi from fighting from the air, the U.S. would give the rebels a chance to carry the fight. Supporters of the action argue that innocent people who simply want to taste the same freedoms that we enjoy are being slaughtered by these air attacks and that they deserve our help.

Forum Question(s) of the Week:

Should military force be brought by any outside, non-Libyan force against Gadhafi, such as the enforcement of a “no-fly” zone? Should the U.S. become involved in any effort to use military force against Gadhafi? Is seeing Gadhafi removed from power in Libya in the vital interest of the U.S.?

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