On December 11, 2005 former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went on "Meet the Press" to opine that the Iraq war had been a mistake--worse than that it had de-railed the successful pre-war program of sanctions and a no-fly zone, which had contained the paper tiger:
And what we did was to keep Saddam Hussein in a box by using diplomacy, sanctions and force, with bombing in the no-fly zone. It worked. And what is evident from the CIA reports is that it did work. The sanctions worked.
"It worked." And so, we can assume, it would have kept on working had the Bush administration only had the wisdom to continue the Clintonian policy of containment.
Of course what Secretary Albright failed to mention was the terrible price Saddam's people paid since they shared that box with him--especially those who almost exactly 20 years ago were being slaughtered by his henchmen in the months before the no-fly zone was established. We did nothing to help them when they attempted to rise up and claim their freedom, an inertia that cost many thousands of lives and resulted in the ecological and humanitarian catastrophe that was the draining of the Iraqi marshes--not to mention the subsequent no-fly zone stalemate that resulted in the second war.
Two decades later we are watching the same tragedy play over in slow motion. In Libya a disenfranchised, oppressed generation has rebelled against their obviously unstable and tyrannical dictator and enjoyed some success. Encouraging words have come from the west, but precious little has been forthcoming in terms of actual support. A no-fly zone has been proposed to at least make a token effort at stopping Gadhafi from mowing these people down from the skies.
But this time the Democratic Secretary of State says not so fast. Hillary Clinton spoke out today against a no-fly zone in congressional testimony:
I want to remind people that, you know, we had a no-fly zone over Iraq. It did not prevent Saddam Hussein from slaughtering people on the ground, and it did not get him out of office.
This from a woman who has been staunch in her opposition to the Iraq war ever since she voted to authorize it, and whose husband was Commander in Chief for eight years of that no-good no-fly zone.
I have a theory to suggest that might help clear up the confusion between Secretary Albright and her "partner" Secretary Clinton regarding the efficacy of the Iraqi no-fly zone, and help us as we plot a path ahead with Libya. No-fly zones and sanctions, be they smart or otherwise, are not a solution in themselves in perpetuity after a popular uprising has failed. They can however be strategically deployed to hamper and harass a dictator when he is back on his heels, giving opposition forces the actual support--not just the encouragement--that they need.
If Gadhafi does indeed turn the tables on the Libyan insurgents over the next days and weeks, it seems unlikely he will be any more gentle with the rebels than Saddam was. In short, I wonder if 20 years from now we will be looking back at March, 2011 the way we look back at March, 1991 and shake our heads over how much trouble we could have saved--with perhaps as little as one of Secretary Albright's no-fly zones. Unfortunately it may already be too late.