PR: Libya – No-fly No-drive Zone, lessons from April 1991 Iraq


How does one reconcile nonviolence, the hallmark of the Middle East Revolution on the march, with how to deal with Libya?

This has been a burning moral quandary facing all those who defend the effectiveness of nonviolence as the key philosophical guide for our action against dictatorships in the Middle East. Nowhere is the test more difficult than in Libya.

Nonviolence is at clear odds with a no-fly zone above Libya, and makes even more unpalatable for nonviolence supporters the no-drive zone which I advocated on February 26, in fear of the Mad Max-style risk of reoccupation by Qaddafi’s blood-thirsty men of those cities that have been freed from his rule.

The military momentum is with Qaddafi, and we are witnessing the déjà vu lived in April 1991, when fourteen out of eighteen provinces fell to the revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to be retaken three weeks later by a bloody drive similar to the march on Zawiyah west and Benghazi east. Late April 1991 is when a group of opponents to Saddam Hussein created the concept of a no-fly zone, in a discussion with the late P.J. Vatikiotis at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and with John Foran and colleagues in the British Foreign Office around David Gore-Booth. John Major carried it through, and by June 1991, most of Kurdish Iraq was free.

In reality, the no-fly zone was not sufficient. Saddam Hussein’s ground troops, as is the case of Qaddafi’s, were doing the fighting. Only when British and allied troops threatened to move against him by entering the North did he relent, minimizing his losses by withdrawing. The concept of protecting the Kurds and allowing them to return home took some time to form: above the 36th parallel, Kurdistan became a no-drive zone, in that Saddam’s heavy machinery, including jeeps, tanks and large trucks were grounded. Saddam did not dare move them any longer, and naked infantry is never sufficient in such cases.

This is what is now needed in Libya to preserve the areas freed from Qaddafi’s dictatorship. At this late stage, only the result counts, which is the protection of the people from their renewed subjugation to Qaddafi’s rule, with Benghazi the focus of the policy. A no-fly zone over which everyone is still agonizing will not yield results quickly enough. Hence the need for a no-drive zone, which would prevent in carefully designated areas his armored vehicles from moving across the highways of Libya.

It will not work in Tripoli and interior cities where combat is taking place, but it will prevent armored troops from driving through the highways and desertic lands across Libya, lest they are bombed out by air and by sea. The technological capacity is simple and available, and the Pentagon is powerful enough to engage in an operation of high-technology with no troops on the ground. As US Defense Secretary Gates said on the no-fly zone, the President must will it, that’s all.

The problem is political, actually moral: for advocates of nonviolence, there is no point in hiding behind our fingers. A no-drive zone that takes out militarily advancing tanks or troop carriers is by definition violent. But as a strong believer in the efficacy of nonviolence, I see in the duty to protect a pressing international doctrine to save innocent victims from impending mass slaughter. The objective is the protection of civilians by creating a shield, flexible and powerful at the same time, around them, long before enemy troops are inside their cities. Such a shield will be used only occasionally, and exceptionally, in designated areas of highways well before killers reach the outskirts of towns. The brigades of Qaddafi, full of hatred as they may be, will hit such a wall of potentially overwhelming fire only once, and will understand very quickly the meaning of technological superiority.

In his remarkable book on Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer has a concluding chapter in the shape of an afterthought, where he dismisses the value of nonviolence in the case of absolute, brutal force like Nazism. This may be correct, and Gandhi, in a disturbing letter of 1938, gave way once to the possibility of exerting physical violence against the marching holocaust threatening the existence of European Jews. Maybe Walzer was right in that case, but the Libyan situation today is not the same. Qaddafi’s killing forces are no match to a threat that prevents them from moving in easily delineated areas.

The US and their democratic allies are on record that Qaddafi must go. This has been emphasized by Presidents Obama and Sarkozy, and by Prime Minister Cameron, time and again. A no-drive zone under the duty to protect can be easily set up to prevent artillery, tanks, armored carriers, and if necessary jeeps, from crossing the highways to Benghazi and elsewhere. In that case,  think that the violence needed or exerted is minimal to stop the onslaught.

And once the spirits of the opposition are up again and Qaddafi humiliated, discomfited, and partly defeated, we should all reconsider how to revive nonviolence to support our colleagues in Tripoli on the way to ending the dictatorship.


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