Snake Oil for Libya

March 13, 2011

Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain, having done so well in their advocacy of the war in Iraq, are now proposing that the U.S. impose a no fly zone in Libya.  They have been joined by Sen. John Kerry and former President Bill Clinton.  In spite of the reputation of these men for effectiveness, and good judgment, we at the Machiavelli family, are skeptical. From a Machiavellian perspective, the no fly zone has two drawbacks: it is likely to unite Libya and it is a protracted half-measure. 

In his most serious work, The Discourses, Machiavelli discussed an incident in early Roman history in which the city’s enemy (the Veientines) attacked the fledgling Republic thinking it vulnerable because at that moment Rome was wracked by violent factional conflict between the commons and the nobles.   

“The Veientines imagined that they could conquer the Romans by attacking them while they were at feud among themselves; but this very attack reunited the Romans and brought ruin on their assailants. For the causes of division in a commonwealth are, for the most part, ease and tranquility, while the causes of union are fear and war. Wherefore, had the Veientines been wise, the more divided they saw Rome to be, the more should they have sought to avoid war with her, and endeavored to gain an advantage over her by peaceful arts.”

CHAPTER XXV – That he who attacks a City divided against itself, must not think to get possession of it through its Divisions.

A no fly zone would be a clear act of war.  It would likely unify Gadaffi’s traditional coalition which is now somewhat fragmented.  In addition, the preparatory air strikes would likely attract to Gadaffi’s cause groups that are not now supporting him but would support him out of hatred and fear of the U.S.  Unifying and enhancing the support for Gadaffi may not be a decisive factor but there is a substantial risk that the no fly zone will do more harm than good.

From a Machiavellian perspective, the no fly zone proposal has another drawback; it is neither swift nor decisive.  Compared to the alternatives of invasion or inaction, it is a protracted half measure.  Niccolò warns against half measures in a section of The Prince where he discusses the apparent paradox that some leaders succeed by using harsh and violent means while others fail.  His answer is that it is not the means that matters, but the way severities are used.

“I believe that this follows from severities being badly or properly used. Those may be called properly used, if of evil it is possible to speak well, that are applied at one blow and are necessary to one’s security, and that are not persisted in afterwards unless they can be turned to the advantage of the subjects. The badly employed are those which, notwithstanding they may be few in the commencement, multiply with time rather than decrease.

He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand; neither can he rely on his subjects, nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs. For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavor of them may last longer.”


Even if the no fly zone does more good than harm and it helps to topple Gadaffi, the result is not one that we can control.   Gadaffi may be replaced by someone who is a more monstrous monster or by a radical Islamic regime that is even more hostile to U.S. interests.  A swift and decisive war is a viable alternative.  So is the often overlooked alternative of doing nothing.  But compared to these two alternatives, the no fly zone is a half measure, the more risky because it is slow. 

A proposal that runs counter to the advice of the father of political realism should give us pause. Despite claims about its effectiveness, the no fly zone proposal is most likely unrealistic, the political equivalent of snake oil, beneficial to the practitioner, but costly and dangerous for the patient.


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