John Kerry’s opinion piece in the March 11 Washington Post, which analyzes the no-fly zone option for Libya, throws into useful relief the reasons why the U.S. Defense Department would approach a no-fly zone (NFZ) with reluctance. Kerry’s editorial is quite reasonable; and with the Obama administration so silent on the policy argument, it’s good to have someone in public office lay out a careful case for an NFZ. But Kerry’s case is pretty much what we would expect it to be. The narrow purpose of an NFZ would be preventing Qaddafi from mounting air attacks on his people.

The important military concern about framing an NFZ this way is that it ignores what Qaddafi’s ultimate objective is. He is not using military force because he wants to slaughter his people. He is using it for the conventional purpose of reconquering the territory of Libya. He may not care very much how many people he kills, but his goal isn’t killing them, it’s retaking territory and restoring the status quo ante.

In this, Qaddafi is unlike Saddam Hussein and the Serbian thugs of the 1990s. Saddam sought to put down the ethnic insurgencies that were a perennial problem for him, but he was not fighting a conventional war of movement – of territory lost and retaken – inside his borders. (In only one case, when he brutally quelled the southern Shi’as after the coalition withdrawal from Desert Storm, was reestablishing sovereign control of territory even partly at issue.)

The fundamental feature of the problem for Saddam was the existence of the restive ethnic groups. The Serb leaders in Bosnia in the 1990s were in much the same case, according to their perception. Although territory was in dispute (in a thoroughly non-linear battlespace), that was not the central issue of the conflict. The principal problem, from the Serbs’ perspective, was the presence of Muslims.

In both cases, the strategic objective of the attacks was eradicating ethnic enemies. That is not the kind of war Qaddafi is fighting. There is certainly an element of internal discord in Libya, centered on the tribal structure, but it has little in common with the fathomless, centuries-old Serb-Muslim divide or the divisions within Saddam’s Iraq, which involved the irreconcilable Kurds in the north and the Shi’a “Marsh Arabs” of the river delta in the south, ruled by Saddam’s secularist Sunni cohort. These features are not present in Qaddafi’s strategic problem.

The crucial point for policy and strategy flows from this reality. An NFZ could be largely effective in keeping Qaddafi’s aircraft on the ground, but still not prevent him from retaking Libya. At the moment, the rebels are poorly armed and without coherent strategic leadership. CIA director James Clapper was terribly impolitic in his unnecessary prognostication this week that Qaddafi would prevail, but his analysis wasn’t invalid. (It is illuminating to consider that he and Obama discuss these matters on a regular basis. There is a sort of clinical dispassion about distant events hovering over their public utterances: an assumption they don’t give voice to – because they see no need to – that U.S. leaders can spitball ideas and pop up with prejudicial analyses in public and it won’t matter.)

The NFZ enforced in Bosnia in the mid-1990s is instructive in this regard. Operation Deny Flight was launched in April 1993 and was enforced for more than two years while the Bosnian Serb forces committed many of the terrible atrocities remembered by the West. The siege of Srebrenica in 1993 was mounted with battlefield artillery, as were the near-daily poundings of Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities throughout the period of the NFZ. Srebrenica was held under siege conditions by the Serbs in 1995 with artillery and motorized infantry, even while it was supposedly a UN-protected enclave. The NFZ prevented fixed-wing aircraft from being used by the Serbs, and inhibited (but did not quash entirely) the use of helicopters.  But it didn’t prevent the Serbs from gaining control of territory, holding urban enclaves at risk, and killing Muslim civilians.

What did eventually drive the Serbs back was the air strike and Tomahawk missile campaign of September 1995, in which NATO destroyed the Serbs’ air defenses and gave the Bosnian government’s troops (the recognized unity government led by Bosnian Muslims) the advantage in destroying or capturing Serb-held positions.

Qaddafi can defeat the rebels without the freedom to use airpower whenever he wants – unless the rebels are armed and organized by an outside force. As excruciating as it was to watch Bob Gates give alibi after alibi to Congress about why an NFZ is just too darn hard, there is an important sense in which reason is on the side of viewing an NFZ with extreme reluctance. It doesn’t address the real problem in Libya, which is the fact that Qaddafi could still regain control of the country.

None of this means that there is nothing to be done about the awful events in Libya. It does mean that a narrowly conceived NFZ – one whose purpose is so narrow even John Kerry would endorse it – is mistargeted. If we enforce an NFZ on Qaddafi while he reconquers Libya – then what?

J.E. Dyer blogs at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions” and as The Optimistic Conservative.  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.

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