It would be considered beyond belief in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that the U.S. Air Force would ever be used to protect al-Qaeda. But not even a decade later, the Air Force did exactly that during Libya’s civil war, particularly via a no-fly zone. Al-Qaeda was one of the myriad of groups forming the rag-tag freedom fighters the Obama-Clinton team used to topple a secular autocrat with the goal of letting democracy flourish. The mechanism was not new. It fits a decades-old pattern.
The Obama administration attempted to replicate this no-fly zone while arming rebels set up in Syria, but faced public opposition–not just public opposition from the rabble, but from anonymous military members, who shared pictures with signs saying they did not sign up to be al-Qaeda’s air force. The scheme was laid bare, but the scheme wasn’t an innovation dreamed up by the Rumsfeld Pentagon in Afghanistan or the Clinton-led, Obama-era State Department.
President Richard Nixon first uttered the doctrine in 1969.
Nixon and his team never used the term Nixon Doctrine to describe the strategy, but the media slapped the name onto the idea, as the strategy represented an important foreign policy decision. One can read the memoirs of Nixon and his inner circle to discover that they had not considered it a doctrine of sorts, but liked the sound of it.
What Nixon laid out was important for the nation and world to hear, in order to gauge America’s behavior with regards to its empire, as opinion on the Vietnam War was changing and the state-academia-media complex had officially turned on the war completely. Nixon stated that America would honor its treaties, provide a nuclear umbrella to allies threatened and nations where vital American interests were at stake, and finally that America would provide the hardware and even air support for a country, so as long as it defended itself from other types of aggression. The manpower and boots on the ground would have to be that nation’s men, not American boys. The sons of America would not die for someone else’s war.
This speech was really to bridge the peace with honor theme from Nixon’s ’68 campaign to Vietnamization. By not specifying that it was Vietnam, other autocrats and allies felt confident that America would defend the current structure from the supposed domino effect of communist insurgencies or outright invasion from Soviet-backed rebels. All bases were covered. This was important in the era of decolonization, as former vassals of the European powers were now up for grabs, with Soviets and Americans jockeying to snap them up. The change in policy in Vietnam would not be a sign that America was cutting and running from its responsibilities as an imperial power. This was a change from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who sent hundreds of thousands of troops to Vietnam, but also sent thousands of troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965.
Autocrats around the globe had partnered with America, but were experiencing insurgencies and rebels who often came with American educational training or Christian support. An analysis of the dissolution of the Portuguese Empire shows that America might have backed multiple insurgent groups, with others receiving Catholic or Christian missionary support. The idea that America would arm, fund, and even provide air cover for a vassal under attack was soothing.
Other large interest groups needed reassurance, as well. The Vietnam war had been a profitable one for large American businesses. This new doctrine fed into the demands of the military-industrial complex as a reduction in American expenditures on arms was bound to happen as the involvement in Vietnam wound down. New sovereigns would be buying weaponry to cement ties and beat back insurgencies. To this day, the Iranian air force still uses F-15s sold to the Shah.
This strategy was considered defensive at the time, but it’s now employed as an offensive tool, which has been bolstered by subsequent technological development. The cruise missile, only on the drawing board in Nixon’s day, was tested during the Carter administration and shown to be dazzling in the first Persian Gulf War. Drones and Tomahawk cruise missiles add to this removal of the human element, which makes selling American involvement much easier, as it fits the Nixon Doctrine, namely preventing American casualties for marketing purposes.
Supplying weaponry and limiting support to air power takes advantage the American manufacturing power and air dominance and also lulls the American people into thinking normal acts of war do not not truly constitute war, since there are no the boots on the ground. World War II was not just American and agriculture, British genius and Russian bodies beating the Nazis and Japanese (nor just the oil monopoly). The American economy provided a staggering amount of material to all of the Allies.
One can read the diary of Lend-Lease control officer Major Jordan to see that America was supplying the Soviets with absurd amounts of material, cranking out thousands of planes and equipment, and even prioritizing servicing Soviet planes ahead of American planes. Roughly 80% of the value of all equipment, vehicles, supplies, and food that went to Europe for American troops was supplied to the Soviets from America in the same timeframe. It is possibly a stretch, but the idea of providing air cover, material, and arms for a nation willing to supply the manpower did not burst onto the American scene with the Nixon Doctrine but with Lend-Lease to the Soviets. “Europe first, Japan second” looks odder in hindsight for the threats to America in 1942, but not if one considers the Arsenal of Democracy concept. By the mid-20th century, America’s economy, arms industry, and international reach were mature enough for this form of foreign involvement.
America now employs the same idea for insurgencies, for jihadists, and for any rebel group (Kurdish feminists) provided that their target is an obstacle to America, or one of its powerful vassals. The implementation of no-fly zones over the skies of sovereign nations is emphatically not defensive, but it might be considered defensive for the rebels America and its vassals are supplying. In reality, the point of this tactic is to strip a sovereign (targeted by America for regime change) of its tactical air support advantage. Rebels do not have air forces, so this no-fly zone concept simply removes the air force of the targeted nation, all the while minimizing American involvement to supplying arms, equipment, and air cover.
This is a perversion of the Nixon Doctrine intended to defend our allies, but this perversion was allowed to happen, though, because the fall of the Soviet Union allowed America’s empire to remain unchallenged and become a hyperpower. No one could project force to match America, and the air defenses and aircraft development that America formerly was up against melted as Russia melted down in the 1990s. One could even argue that air power is only used globally if it receives permission from America or explicitly fits American interests. The Bush administration did not fuss over the 2007 Israeli strike on a Syrian reactor site.
A no-fly zone is supposedly a defensive posture often justified based on humanitarian concerns, but it nevertheless is offensive and aggressive. This strategy runs into problems if a rival sovereign possessing an air force with decent firepower catches onto the game. Russia’s use of air power in Syria without American permission was a first pushback. China building islands with aircraft runways to act as permanent, fixed aircraft carriers can be seen as another example for quick deployment into contested Asian zones. If China and Russia have caught on, then the window for this “our money + gear, your blood” game may be closing in theaters where interests come into contact.
The question remains if the American imperial mandarins realize the game is exposed and that a new method must replace it.