Welcome to Capitol Hill’s ‘No-Fly Zone Island.’ It has a high-profile mayor despite myriad risks

Build Back Better too risky for Manchin, but no-fly zone seems acceptable

Ukrainian forces shoot down a Russian attack helicopter Saturday.  (Defense Ministry of Ukraine/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Ukrainian forces shoot down a Russian attack helicopter Saturday. (Defense Ministry of Ukraine/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Posted March 8, 2022 at 11:59am

ANALYSIS — Welcome to what might be called Capitol Hill’s “No-Fly Zone Island.” It has few occupants but a high-profile mayor: Sen. Joe Manchin III.

It is a high-stakes, real-life version of the fictional “Fantasy Island,” and the West Virginia Democrat who made himself its Mr. Roarke is going it mostly alone amid warnings of a cascade of unexpected consequences from its well-intentioned, if unrealistic, ambitions.

“To take anything off the table, thinking we might not be able to use things because we’ve already taken it off the table, is wrong,” Manchin told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

“I would take nothing off the table. But I would be very clear that we’re going to support the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian president and this government every way humanly possible,” he added.

“Every way” is not how war works. That’s because, as former Defense Secretary James Mattis, the hard-charging retired Marine Corps general who earned the nickname “Mad Dog,” often cautioned: “The enemy gets a vote.”

"MTP" moderator Chuck Todd pointed out to Manchin what Republicans and Democrats have said for weeks: Establishing a no-fly zone could trigger a much broader conflict, pitting U.S. forces directly against Russia’s military. “I understand that,” Manchin replied, acknowledging that, if he were the commander in chief, he would accept the myriad risks of a no-fly zone.

Putting aside those potential consequences for a moment, Manchin’s statement is eyebrow-raising for another reason: He shot down President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” domestic spending plan because he thought it would spend too much and do too little to help combat rising inflation.

In short, he found it too economically and fiscally risky.

But not a no-fly zone that could lead an American fighter pilot to shoot down a Russian one — or vice versa. Military experts, Biden administration officials and lawmakers in both parties warn that could trigger another world war.

’A catchphrase‘

Manchin is typically to the left of Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio on such issues. Here is the Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman’s assessment: “A no-fly zone has become a catchphrase. I’m not sure a lot of people fully understand what that means,” Rubio told ABC's "This Week."

“That means flying AWACS 24 hours a day," he said, referring to Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. "That means the willingness to shoot down and engage Russian airplanes in the sky. That means, frankly, you can’t put those planes up there unless they’re willing to knock out the anti-aircraft systems that the Russians have deployed, and not just in Ukraine, but [in] Russia and also in Belarus.

“So basically, a no-fly zone, if people understand what it means, it means World War III. It means starting World War III,” Rubio added. “It’s not some rule you pass that everybody has to oblige by.”

Manchin has been a senator since 2010, meaning he has — like all members of the chamber — received classified briefings about other no-fly zones and aerial combat missions. So he surely understands Rubio’s point. He also surely understands there are 4,497 other reasons to, at this point in the Russian invasion, not deploy U.S. or NATO aircraft to set up a no-fly zone.

That is the number of Russian nuclear warheads available to Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the Arms Control Association.

Manchin said he had joined a lawmakers’ Zoom call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, calling it “so surreal” to hear him warn “if Ukraine falls, Europe may fall.”

Biden is declining to deploy any U.S. troops to Ukraine to avoid a broader conflict, while playing the long game of seeing if stiff sanctions — and the Russian military’s own supply chain issues — could cause Putin to pull back.

‘Limits of its power’

There are worries that a no-fly zone would cause Putin to further escalate his military adventure before the economic penalties’ full wrath has been felt in Moscow. A treaty-bound Washington would have no choice but to join what would be, in Rubio’s words, “World War III.”

“The United States has spent much of the past three decades dealing with powers much weaker than itself. Even so, it has learned painful lessons about the limits of its power and its capacity to do harm as well as good,” according to Stephen Wertheim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“These lessons may be difficult to recall in the face of Russia’s deplorable and ongoing attack,” he added. “But they have become only more important now, as the United States confronts a great power and nuclear peer capable of inflicting damage well beyond Ukraine.”

Even if Putin kept his nuclear arms tethered, military experts say a no-fly zone would most likely lead him to further intensify his missile and ground strikes inside Ukraine, ramping up the death and suffering Manchin wants to halt.

Author Daniel Denvir, a visiting fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute, put it this way in a tweet: “Amazing Manchin believes that Build Back Better poses too much inflation risk while not giving a [expletive] that a no-fly zone risks nuclear war.”