In 1999, I was a Navy F-14 pilot enforcing a no-fly zone over Southern Iraq. As I climbed into my cockpit, I was confident – confident in our mission to destroy Saddam Hussein’s brutal Republican Guard units, confident in my ability to distinguish foes from the innocent Iraqi civilians we were protecting, and confident in the legitimacy and wide support of an United Nations-backed mission.
If I were to suit up today to enforce a no-fly zone over Libyan to help depose dictator Muammar Qaddafi, I would be conducting a murkier – and more dangerous – mission. First of all, I would not have a clear mission to guide me. Is it to destroy all Libyan aircraft, to identify and destroy only Qaddafi’s forces, or to just protect civilians from airborne assault? I would not be able to easily distinguish rebels from government forces on the ground. Both fighting forces look pretty much the same when you are flying at high speed or high altitude. I would have none of the policy cohesion and global support that I had in 1999. Washington, DC would still be trying to sort out what to do. At the current pace of international negotiations, I probably would have neither United Nations nor NATO support.
I am proud that the United States is considering military actions to “lead from the front” to stop Qaddafi’s planes and tanks from killing civilian protesters. Yet, the Libyan situation is one that is best resolved with global (or at least regional) consensus. Unilateral action is ill-advised as we have considerable burdens in Iraq and Afghanistan currently. Adding a unilateral military force to the Libyan conflict could unnecessarily burden our military, put additional strain on America as it fights to right its economic course post-recession, and provide additional fodder to those that posit that America routinely acts capriciously and unilaterally.
If the United States were to become involved militarily in the absence of any sort of global consensus, that would take us back to the fragile “coalition of the willing” of the Bush era. This undermines our work to strengthen NATO and the United Nations as organizations that could take on more global security responsibilities. When coalitions are ad hoc, it makes for a less predictable and stable climate for our allies to find common ground on which to solve future problems.
We should strive for global, or at a minimum regional, consensus on how to address the Libyan problem. If the United Nations cannot reach consensus, America should not assume that its actions would be in concert with trans-regional goals. After all, if our allies are not sufficiently included in the “take-off” planning, they are less likely to be with us for the landing.
Congress and the Obama Administration should strive for policies that would make it relatively safe for a pilot climbing into a cockpit in the near future to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. He should know that his aerial bombing targets were properly vetted to distinguish between civilians and armed forces and that the rules of engagement make sense. He should have the peace of mind to know that America and the global community are behind him 100 percent and that there is recognizable agreement on the preferred diplomatic and military options.