Senior senators from both parties stepped up their push for a no-fly zone over Libya, suggesting Pentagon concerns about its risks are overblown.
Senator John Kerry, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the U.S. should begin working with allies to prepare a no-fly zone that would be implemented if Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi used his air force “as a means of massacring large numbers of civilians.”
Kerry, speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program yesterday, downplayed Defense Department warnings that a no-fly zone would be “an extraordinarily complex” operation and would require an attack on Libya’s air defenses.
“That’s actually not the only option for what one could do,” said Kerry, a Vietnam combat veteran. “One could crater the airports and the runways and leave them incapable of using them for a period of time.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in congressional testimony last week that suppressing Libyan air forces would require offensive military operations against Libya. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses.”
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a Pentagon news conference last week that a no-fly zone would be “an extraordinarily complex operation to set up.”
Antiquated Air Defenses
Senator John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Navy pilot who flew combat missions over Vietnam, where he was a prisoner of war after being shot down, dismissed such concerns in an appearance yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” program.
“I would like to point out their air assets are not large,” McCain said of Libya’s military. “Their air defenses are somewhat antiquated.”
A no-fly zone, McCain, of Arizona, said, “would send a signal to Qaddafi that the president is serious when he says we need for Qaddafi to go. And also, it would be encouraging to the resistance, who are certainly outgunned from the air.”
Putting in place such an exclusionary zone, as the U.S. did over Iraq and Bosnia in the 1990’s, would be intended to prevent Qaddafi from using aircraft against anti-government rebels.
Short Term Operation
“I think that if you were to have one, it’s not going to be like Iraq or Bosnia for the long term,” Kerry, of Massachusetts, said. While those no-fly zones lasted years, Kerry suggested a zone over Libya would be needed for a shorter duration, though he gave no time estimate.
President Barack Obama has said all options are under review, though he has stopped short of calling for a no-fly zone.
“Lots of people throw around the phrase of ‘no-fly zone,’ and they talk about it a though it’s just a game, a video game or something, and some people who throw that line out have no idea what they’re talking about,” William Daley, Obama’s chief of staff, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “The president has said all options are on the table, but this has to be an international effort.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told CBS’s “Face the Nation” program that a no-fly zone is “worth considering.” He said another option “is simply aiding and arming the insurgents.”
No U.S. Ground Troops
Kerry and McCain stressed they weren’t advocating the use of U.S. ground troops in Libya.
McCain called the option of a ground intervention “very unproductive,” while Kerry described it as “the last thing we want to think about.”
“We don’t want troops on the ground. They don’t want troops on the ground,” Kerry said on CBS.
Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser to former President George W. Bush, said on CNN that a better alternative than a no-fly zone might be to funnel arms to Libyan rebels, including anti-aircraft systems, “so they can create their own no-fly zone rather than the United States have to do it.”
Hadley, appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” program, said the U.S. should use increased diplomacy and economic and military aid to the rebels “to build some momentum” for a toppling of the Qaddafi government.
McCain said a greater focus on economic assistance, particularly in Egypt, will be the key to new and stable governments across the Middle East.
“Perhaps the most important thing we could do in the long run for these countries is investment,” McCain said. “Because you know this was all about jobs.”