Imperial hangovers and No Fly Zones
This morning, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby made a short appearance on NPR’s Morning Edition, in which he was pressed repeatedly about the Biden administration’s refusal to start World War III. Host Leila Fadel asked multiple times why the president has not ordered a “No Fly Zone” over Ukraine.
Each time, Kirby gave a variation on the same response:
“It is basically combat. You have to be willing to shoot down other aircraft and you have to be willing to be shot at. And our view is that puts the United States in direct military confrontation with the Russians, and that has a very, very strong potential of escalating this conflict well beyond what it already is ... And not only is that not good for our national security interests, it’s not good for Europe and absolutely not going to be good for the Ukrainians.”
Unsatisfied, Fadel asked if there was a “red line” which, if crossed, would result in U.S. troops and planes going to war. Again the spokesman responded:
“There will be no U.S. troops fighting in Ukraine. That includes in the skies over Ukraine. Again, we have to be very careful that we don’t make decisions, we take actions that escalate this conflict between two nuclear power nations.”
This is all pretty basic. A “No Fly Zone” is not a magic spell or some kind of Star Trek force field you turn on that keeps Russian planes away. It is a military operation that involves the bombing of anti-aircraft batteries (some of which, in this case, would likely be on Russian soil), and a commitment to shoot down any enemy aircraft that violates the space.
Implementing an NFZ would do little to stop the Russian shelling or ground attacks that have made up the bulk of the war so far. But it would be, as Kirby kept trying to explain, a short-lived prelude to war between nuclear powers — one of which, namely Russia, has “explicitly rejected” the old Soviet Union’s “no-first-use pledge,” and, as Amy F. Woolf summarized this month in a horrifying Congressional Research Service report, “may be prepared to employ, or threaten to employ, nuclear weapons during a regional conflict.”
So why the insistence — if not incredulity — on the part of many liberals, including the NPR host? Nicholas Miller, a Dartmouth professor and expert on nuclear proliferation, chalks this up to what he calls a “unipolarity hangover” — “a condition where the afflicted advocate policies feasible against weak adversaries but possibly suicidal against major power rivals.” He also includes “limited airstrikes” and regime change under that umbrella.
I’ll take it one step further. It requires historical amnesia, built out of ignorance cultivated in real time, about the costs and dangers of supposedly low-risk confrontations. In Iraq, in the twelve years between 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 U.S. invasion, the U.S. and British air forces established a No Fly Zone over much of Iraq. In practice, it was a decade-plus low-level war in which hundreds of civilians were killed or wounded. Mistakes were often made, including the accidental shooting down of two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters by two American F-15s, an incident in which twenty-six soldiers were killed.
It also helped lay the groundwork for the 2003 invasion and ensuing U.S. occupation of Iraq which killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (at least) and reduced major cities like Baghdad to rubble. The initial bombing runs against Saddam Hussein’s forces in late 2002 were simply stepped-up sorties by NFZ patrols. As Micah Zenko wrote in 2016: “Every NFZ that the United States has imposed — whether in Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, or Libya — was expanded to support military and political objectives that had nothing to do with how they were initially justified.”
The continued popular rumbling among some Americans (and Europeans) for No Fly Zones or other direct NATO confrontation with Russia is a reminder that, while war is indeed a racket, it is not always simply a matter of a small group of leaders conniving their way into conflict, especially in countries that still organize themselves as democracies. There is real, justifiable, and deeply felt sympathy for the incredible suffering being visited on the Ukrainian people by the murderous authoritarian imperialism of Vladimir V. Putin, which creates a deep desire to “do something.” After over a century of American militarism in every corner of the world, that “something” is almost always a military strike.
The Biden administration feels that pressure coming from below, and maybe shares some of the instincts producing it, hence the flood of U.S. weapons to the Ukrainians and the crippling (if apparently not very coordinated or strategic) sanctions regime against Russia. For the moment, they seem to be keeping their heads — refusing to raise the U.S. nuclear alert in response to Putin’s saber-rattling, and similarly resisting understandable but dangerous calls from Ukrainians to “close the skies.” Who knows how long they will be able to hold out, or if Putin will try to push the governments of peoples of Europe and the U.S. into an apocalyptic confrontation. For now, for once, our leaders seem to recognize how easily this war could come home.
Edited by Sam Thielman
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More voices on the conflict:
A very smart interview with Ukrainian anthropologist Volodymyr Artiukh
Paul Musgrave on why we should hope for a “peace without victory”
Richard Gowan on why the United Nations is another casualty of Putin’s war
Happy to report finally that Gangsters of Capitalism is selling really well … so well, in fact, that indie bookstores and Bookshop.org have temporarily run out of stock. The printer is working to replenish them. In the meantime, you can still get it from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Thanks again for reading. Have a good weekend.