No-fly Zone Debate: Return of the Paleocons?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

A recent Politico article seemed to assert that most of the likely 2012 GOP candidates are neo-cons.  While I objected to the notion that supporting the war in Afghanistan qualifies one as a “neo-con” — the fact that most of the GOP field supports the war was correct.

This, of course, is really part of a much larger debate, which has now extended to Libya — more specifically, whether or not to impose a no-fly zone.

The argument for imposing a no-fly zone is simply to create appropriate conditions to limit Gaddafi’s ability to murder insurgents via air power.  That alone might be enough to topple the “Mad Man of Tripoli — which many believe would more than justify the operation.

And regardless of where the likely presidential candidates stand, when it comes to conservative opinion leaders, I am noticing an increasingly opposite trend.

Take, for example, Tim Carney’s recent Washington Examiner column, titled, “Libya interventionists trust government, not people” — or RedState’s “Streiff”, who blogged that “involving the US in any effort to establish or enforce a ‘no fly’ zone is likewise folly.”  Clearly, many conservative opinion leaders are publicly opposing imposing a no-fly zone.

Buckley’s magazine was not immune from the sentiment, either.  Take, for example, National Review editor Rich Lowry, who argued: “The debate over the no-fly zone should be understood as merely a proxy for the debate over whether we are going to intervene militarily to topple Qaddafi or not.”

NR’s Stanely Kurtz also wrote: “I am not an advocate of establishing a no-fly zone in Libya. When it comes to the freedom agenda in the Middle East, I am a skeptic.”

While one might expect the Left to oppose military intervention, the number of prominent conservative writers opposing the no-fly zone strikes me as somewhat notable.

My question is…why?

One obvious reason might be that we are still suffering from a “Bush backlash”. Optimism about America’s ability to positively exert influence around the world seems to be at a low point — which sadly reminds me of the post-Vietnam era.  (This is a bit ironic because Reagan’s bombing of Libya was arguably one of the instances that demonstrated America wasn’t, in fact, impotent, and that we were still willing and able to stand up to tyrants — and win.)

After Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the assumption seems to be that America is neither willing nor able to conduct any limited military operation without “mission creep” leading us into a nation-building quagmire.

As such, even some conservatives are drawing little distinction between a limited military operation such as imposing a no-fly zone — and going to war.  Carney, for example, argues imposing a no-fly zone is “the same as going to war in Libya.”  This is interesting, inasmuch as a no-fly zone would involve no boots on the ground, and, I’m guessing, when most people hear the term “war,” they think of ground troops (whether that is combat or “peacekeeping” operations).

And let’s be honest: If the U.S. can’t impose a no-fly zone in Libya — without getting sucked into a quagmire — we’re pretty much done as a world power, anyway.

So what explains why so many on the right are so opposed to this?  Are we witnessing a return of the Paleocons?

Labeling conservatives who oppose the no-fly zone as such would probably be just as disingenuous as calling everyone who supports a specific instance of military intervention a neo-con. “A foolish consistency,” Emerson wrote, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  It strikes me that any ideology which is either always for — or always against — military intervention, is dangerous.  Every instance should be judged on its merits.

Few of the conservatives who oppose the no-fly zone, I’m guessing, are isolationists — nor are they anti-Israel.  And while I would hope that we are all anti-imperialists, imposing a no-fly zone hardly qualifies as empire building.

But perhaps they are a bit quixotic?  After all, it would be wonderful to believe that America could heed George Washington’s warning to avoid “entangling alliances,” but it’s unrealistic to think that’s an option in the post-World War II world — much less in the post-9-11 21st century.  The notion that we can avoid conflict by simply staying out of the affairs of the world strikes me as naive.

Of course, there may be some entirely valid and nuanced reasons for conservatives to oppose intervention.  Some conservatives may frankly have no confidence in President Obama’s ability as Commander-in-Chief to oversee such an operation.  Returning to the post-Vietnam era analogy, Obama is clearly more Carter than Reagan.  Along those same lines, some conservatives have voiced concerns that the U.S. military has been depleted to the extent that it simply no longer has the capacity to conduct such a mission.

Matt K. Lewis