I wish everyone talking about imposing a no-fly zone on Libya would take a deep breath. Americans have an odd habit of backing into war . We first deployed ground combat forces into Vietnam in the spring of 1965 simply to protect American air bases, for example. (Honestly, we didn't mean to violate Vizinni's law -- scroll down to the end of the poison discussion.)
Here are some of the issues that need to be examined. Anyone who advocates a no-fly zone should be required to answer them.
1. Imposing a no-fly zone is an act of war. For example, it would require attacking Qaddafi's air defense systems-not just anti-aircraft guns and missile batteries, but also radar and communications systems. We may also need some places out in the desert to base helicopters to pick up downed fliers. So, first question: Do we want to go to war with Qaddafi?
2. Hmmm, another American war in an Arab state -- what's not to like?
3. How long are we willing to continue this state of war? What if we engage in an act of war, and he prevails against the rebels? Do we continue to fight him, escalate -- or just slink away? And what do we do about aircrews taken prisoner?
4. And if we are going to go to war with his government, why not just try to finish the job quickly and conduct air strikes against him and his infrastructure? In this sense, a no-fly zone is a half measure, which generally is a bad idea in war. Why risk going to war and losing? That is, if we are willing to do air strikes, why not go the whole way and use ground troops now to go in and topple a teetering regime? I actually would prefer this option.
5. See what I mean?
6. No, the Iraqi no-fly zones are not a good precedent to cite. I actually went out and looked at the operation of the northern no-fly zone in October of 2000. I came away thinking that one reason that no American aircraft were shot down in the Iraqi no-fly zones was because Saddam Hussein really did not want to-that is, he did not want to provoke America. The anti-aircraft shots that were taken were wide on purpose. A better parallel might be Serbia, which (aided by a smart Hungarian national who now is a baker) managed to down an F-117 stealth fighter aircraft in March 1999 with an SA-3 anti-aircraft missile.
As General Mattis once said, if you're going to take Vienna, take f---ing Vienna.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.