I think the USA is right to say that any No fly zone would need UN backing, an invitation from the Libyan democratic movements, and agreement from the immediate neighbours of Libya as pre-conditions. These are all unlikely to come together. They are also right to warn that a No fly zone may require warfare to impose it. It may need the bombing of land installations that maintain and support the Libyan airforce, or may entail bringing Libyan planes down over inhabited territory. It may well result in the deaths of Libyans who are not party to the uprising or who are on the democratic side. The arithmetic of war is always unpleasant to weigh, and poses all sorts of legal and moral issues for anyone thinking of interfering in a civil war from outside. If it is attempted, the west needs to be sure of its legal and moral ground, and to see how it could mount an operation where the positive results outweighed the damage done. Any campaign is about hearts and minds as well as about planes and bombs.
The UK is not in a position to carry out this task. Yesterday the government decomissioned Ark Royal. Tripoli is around 1500 miles from London, and over 1000 miles from Cyprus. If NATO forces are to carry out this task it would be easier for the US to do it from carriers nearby, or for Italy to do it. Palermo is around 350 miles from Tripoli and Naples a bit over 500 miles. France is considerably closer too. Marseilles is about half the distance from Libya compared to London.
Many of us would like to see the brave resistance of the democratic uprising be successful. It is heart breaking to watch the tv pictures of the brutal repression now underway in Libya. They show that the more serious threat to the Libyan people comes not from the Libyan airforce, but from the tanks, heavy guns and small arms fire of the troops still loyal to the dictator. If you wanted to stop that it would require a western military presence with force on the ground. Trying to stop that from the air would mean numerous deaths and much destruction of Libyan cities from air bombardment, with no guarantee of success. The Libyan army could go to ground in the buildings of the cities.
The EU is unlikely to be the body that takes such a decision or mounts such an operation. NATO is the organisation with the command and planning capacity and potential military support which could do it. NATO will rightly want greater certainty about local reactions before committing forces, and a plan which gave a reasonable chance of success. The truth is that today the position of the democratic forces does not look good. Tomorrow may bring a change. It is also difficult to see how the dictator can govern a country where he has so clearly lost control. It is one thing to force people into temporary submission. It is another to govern them, when your army is relatively small and when so many people have reason to resent the government. The dictator’s government will be like an occupying power for many parts of the country. Once government troops have recaptured a city they need to ask themselves how can they protect themselves once the hot fighting has stopped? How can they enforce the government’s will when there will be so little support from many of the citizens? Brutality can take you so far, but it only works as a means of governing if most people most of the time accept the authority that imposes it.