March 06, 2011

Echo of Balkans In US Policy Debate On Libya

As US President Barack Obama weighs possible military action in Libya, there are echoes of another policy debate that raged in the 1990s over the wars in the Balkans.

The parallels include senators demanding bold action from the air to protect civilian life, a growing humanitarian crisis and a cautious US military warning about the risks of intervention.

The Pentagon and White House at times have sent mixed signals about the likelihood of a possible no-fly zone in Libya, but US officials insist there is no military-civilian rift like the one that marked Bill Clinton's presidency over former Yugoslavia.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the US military's top officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, showed little enthusiasm for a no-fly zone over Libya this week, with Gates castigating "loose talk" about military action.

Their remarks came only days after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a no-fly zone was under consideration, but officials played down any possibility of discord and said there was no bid by the Pentagon to box in the White House.

"They were just being honest about what it involves," a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

At a Senate hearing earlier this week, Clinton compared the policy dilemmas on Libya to the conflict in the Balkans when her husband was commander-in-chief.

The most serious policy battles over the Balkans focused on whether to escalate beyond a no-fly zone and take military action, including bombing raids, against Serb forces in Bosnia, and later in Kosovo.

The United States and its NATO allies eventually opted for air strikes after years of debate, but military commanders initially were deeply reluctant, including top officer General Colin Powell.

Frustrated with Powell's stance, the then UN ambassador Madeleine Albright once famously asked him, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

Robert Hunter, who served as NATO ambassador under president Clinton, believes the no-fly zone over Bosnia was largely a failure, as Serb forces were still able to target civilians with tanks and artillery on the ground.

NATO air strikes, however, proved decisive, he said.

The former diplomat dismissed a no-fly zone for Libya as useless.

"People are now talking about it without thinking about how you would do it, but even more importantly, would it have an impact?" he said.

"If you stop all the flights of airplanes over Libya you're not going to stop Kadhafi's ability to kill people. It's a feel-good thing."

Instead, the United States and its partners need to look for ways to push Kadhafi from power by possibly arming opposition forces, jamming communications or reaching out to members of the regime along with other Arab states.

Citing the danger posed to civilians, Senator John McCain has led calls in Congress for swift action in Libya, urging a no-fly zone and possible covert operations.

"If you want Kadhafi to go, then one of the steps among many would be to establish a no-fly zone to prevent him from massacring his own people from the air," McCain said Friday.

Taking action in Libya raises similar diplomatic headaches that bedeviled world powers over the Balkan conflict, as securing a UN mandate for a no-fly zone could prove elusive, said Richard Fontaine, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

"It's likely Russia and China would oppose a US or NATO-led no-fly zone. So the US would have to decide whether to go ahead without a UN mandate," Fontaine said.

The no-fly zones set up in Bosnia and in Iraq in the 1990s succeeded in shutting down air power but the operations had to be sustained with numerous aircraft for years and -- in both cases -- ground forces moved with impunity.

The open-ended nature of a no-fly zone also carries the potential of gradually drawing the countries enforcing them into more direct military action, as was the case in both Bosnia and Iraq.

Unlike the Balkans, intervention in Libya carries higher strategic stakes, with unrest sweeping the oil-rich region.

Launching military action could backfire and sow anti-US sentiment in the Arab world, while allowing Kadhafi to prevail could curtail other protest movements, Fontaine said.

"So it's a hard balance to walk -- on the one hand we don't want to take any counterproductive actions. But on the other we have an interest in this uprising succeeding -- not just because of Libya but because of the ripple effects it will have elsewhere, one way or the other," he said.