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October 07, 2011

When You Say No-Fly-Zone and R2P, Do You Mean Regime Change?
Posted by Eric Martin

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Josh Rogin published a piece earlier this week with a headline that touted Sen. Joe Lieberman's recent call for a "no-fly-zone" over Syria. (For those familiar with the Regime Change Ratchet*, this would put Lieberman in Step 3).  While such a hawkish stance from Sen. Lieberman is hardly remarkable, what is interesting is that Sen. Lieberman, like the Syrian protesters cited in the piece, is actually calling for something far more involved than a mere no-fly-zone.

Following the precedent set with respect to the Libya intervention, the term "no-fly-zone" is becoming a euphemism for a more robust military engagement - one that includes troops on the ground, arming rebel factions and the use of air power to target a wide range of military and regime assets.

Such lexical imprecision is not harmless, however. It can forestall, or at least muddle, the necessary discussion of the increased costs, greater risks and potential responsibilities that arise in the aftermath, associated with the type of military engagement that is actually being proposed under the guise of a relatively simpler no-fly-zone.  Even if "no-fly-zone" makes for an easier sell to the public, as well as prospective coalition partners.

Consistent with this euphemistic trend, the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) doctrine is being invoked by proponents of military action in Syria when, in essence, most are calling for regime change - a policy that, again, exponentially raises the stakes in terms of costs, risks and difficulty in managing the aftermath.  

Along those lines, Shadi Hamid and Gregory Gause had a very interesting bloggingheads discussion (relevant excerpt here) of what Gause termed the "bait and switch" that was perpetrated in connection with the Libyan intervention - sold to various parties as an R2P mission whereas, in practice, it was regime change. Shadi's counterpoint was not without merit: that there was no feasible way to protect the civilian population of Libya absent regime change, since Qaddafi (if left in power) would eventually retaliate.

While Shadi is likely correct, the lesson is that we should look at every proposed R2P missions with that potential escalation front and center.  At the outset, we must determine whether there is a strong likelihood that we could protect the civilian population in question by a military action that falls short of regime change. If not, it is essential that we fully appreciate exactly how serious this proposed military involvement is, and what it could entail in terms of ongoing responsibilities (this is especially true given the horrendous track record for success in terms of such endeavors - but more on that in a future post).

(*Credit Matt Yglesias for the name)

Photo Credit: PhoenixFlyer2008

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