The US will continue to talk with NATO allies about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, the Obama administration’s envoy to the Western military alliance told reporters today, but in all likelihood it won’t happen — and it wouldn’t work even if imposed.  In his conference call with the media today, Ivo Daalder said that the kinds of attacks launched by Gaddafi against the civilian population mainly come from helicopters and other aircraft that would easily avoid the prosecution of a no-fly zone:

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder in a call with reporters Monday said that “the kinds of capabilities that are being used to attack the rebel forces and, indeed, the population will be largely unaffected by a no-fly zone,” Daalder said.

Daalder was not going rogue; he was voicing the skepticism many Obama administration officials have about the efficacy of the push. …

US officials say there was a significant decrease in both fighter and overall air activity over the weekend and, as Daalder put it, “the overall air activity has not been the deciding factor in the ongoing unrest; just as you stated, other things are really determining what’s happening on the ground.”

He underlined that “it’s important to understand that no-fly zones are more effective against fighters, but they really have a limited effect against the helicopters or the kind of ground operations that we’ve seen, which is why a no-fly zone, even if it were to be established, isn’t really going to impact what is happening there today.”

ABC’s Jake Tapper quotes an unnamed administration official asserting that the US could save more lives through humanitarian action rather than a no-fly zone.  Towards that end, Daalder’s efforts appear mainly focused on a more coordinated humanitarian response.  NATO has begun gaming out plans to step up evacuations using naval assets in the Mediterranean, offering a command-and-control center for humanitarian relief, and putting up more AWACS to monitor the situation.

The no-fly zone had its limitations in Iraq as well, when the US and UK imposed it for years during the latter part of  Saddam Hussein’s regime.  The 1991 war all but destroyed the Iraqi air force anyway, which meant fewer challenges for the prosecution of the no-fly zones in the north and south.  It didn’t keep Saddam from wreaking his revenge and establishing his dominance on Shi’ites in the south.  Saddam was less successful on both counts with Kurds in the north.

That leaves the West with few options and a lot of questions about the aftermath of the Libyan revolt.  Europe will face a refugee crisis, especially if NATO starts throwing resources into evacuations; the last thing Egypt and Tunisia need is more revolutionary-minded strangers inserted into their own crises.  All of the other Arab nations (except Iraq) have the same kind of autocratic rule that the Libyans seek to escape.  The only place to send the refugees will be in NATO’s home countries, which is why the EU has to take the lead in pressing forward for a solution.  Right now, the Obama administration appears out of ideas, or at least out of the confidence to put them into place.

Update: John McCain is having none of it. Even if it doesn’t prevent all of the attacks, a no-fly zone would send a powerful message of support to the rebels:

“The President of the United States has said Qaddafi must go – that means that we need to take action,” McCain told anchor Erica Hill. “A no-fly zone would not only stop the air attacks but it would also send a message to the anti-Qaddafi forces that we’re assisting them. There is humanitarian aid that needs to be given, intelligence that we could share with them – a number of areas take we could help these anti-Qaddafi forces without sending in ground troops. And we’re facing a huge humanitarian crisis there, too.”

But can a no-fly zone fly without a ground invasion as well? McCain did not believe so.

“For ten years over Iraq, we imposed a no-fly zone, and the escalation was as a result of 9/11, not because of that,” he told Hill.

“And I will point out again, Qaddafi’s air capabilities are not very great, his maintenance is not good. It’s not that huge a problem when you look at where his air assets are located.”

McCain’s point about sending a message is well taken, but we’d better be prepared for a long and aggressive campaign against the Libyan air force. If Gaddafi survives, he’s going to start coming after the West again as he did in the 1980s.