No-Fly Zone Over Libya Could Backfire & Undermine Protests in Middle East

I recorded a few minutes of comments outlining my concerns over the Libya No-Fly Zone debate.

In short, a no-fly zone is a high cost, low return strategy that doesn't necessarily create a military tipping point in favor of the Libyan opposition. Gaddafi is at war with his own people, and it's natural and important to try and protect and help unarmed protesters and innocent victims -- but a no-fly zone may harm the situation more than help.

If the US and NATO impose a no-fly zone, it gives Gaddafi a frame he thrives in: Libya against what he calls the imperialistic and neo-colonial interventions of evil America and the West. Last week at the TED 2011 meeting in Long Beach, Al Jazeera Director General Wadah Khanfar underscored the significance that the protests shaking the entire Middle East were occurring without the clutter and distraction and potential delegitimization of foreign intervention.

This is important. A no-fly zone changes what appears on TV and changes the entire frame. What is happening in the Middle East will instantly become about what the West will do and won't do -- rather than on what the citizens who have had enough are doing for themselves.

I still believe we should help and there are ways to do so without a large military footprint.

Among these and perhaps most importantly is sharing real time intelligence with the Opposition, from targeting to what Gaddafi's movements are. Stop the flow of mercenary goons into the country. Consider a blockade. Perhaps look at facilitating third countries helping to re-arm and supply the military stocks of the Opposition with no US weapons visibility -- which will only stoke the conspiracy theories that run rampant that the US has become Messianically obsessed with regime change and will tilt outcomes in directions it wants rather than what the public is calling for.

Send food, water, shelter and medical supplies to support those in need -- on the borders with Egypt & Tunisia -- as well as inside Libya.

But caution is important here and thinking about the downsides and tripwires to engagement much broader and more serious than a "no-fly zone".

In the Qatar newspaper the Peninsula today, the editorial page highlighted a "quote of the day" by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle who said:

A no-fly zone is not putting up a traffic sign, but intervening with bombs, rockets, weapons. If it doesn't work, do we go further, with land forces?"

That is an important question among others -- but the biggest blindspot that the US and West have is that there is an enormous allergy among average citizens to Western meddling.

We need to sort that out -- and need to make sure that what ever the US and NATO elect to do actually helps rather than undermines those fighting for better futures in Libya.

Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons.