Libya: the (next) moment of decision is approaching

When intervention in Libya was being discussed in Britain a few months back, the key ethical argument was the dual claim of the urgency of doing something and impossibility of standing by and doing nothing. After the first 2-3 weeks, it became clear even to passionate advocates of intervention that the issue was more complicated than that.

Blown cover story

The initial cover story that the intervention would simply be imposing a no-fly zone with the aim of preventing civilian deaths at the hands of Qaddafi’s murderous forces has long since been blown.

OK – perhaps that’s unfair. For many advocates it was a real motive and I will willingly concede that they believed in the limited operation they were arguing for. My point – and the bitterness that lies behind it is because the same point has been valid, valid and valid again over the past two decades – is that that limited form and aim of intervention was not realistic.

IT WOULD NOT WORK. I have looked into some of the frustrating and seemingly irreducible components of this non-workability in an article for Public Policy Research, out now. Mine is the middle of the three in a cluster - just like my position is pretty much in the uncertain middle.

And the people who were taking the decisions and tasked with implementing them KNEW ALL ALONG IT WOULD NOT WORK. For them – for Cameron, Sarkozy, Obama and their military chiefs – the aim from the beginning has been regime change. That they had to mask it was to do with the constraints imposed both by a sceptical public opinion at home and a wary Arab league in the region.

To do them credit, they never acted as if a drive-by intervention would suffice. But they did – and rightly for diverse political, military, financial and moral considerations – want to limit their military involvement. So it’s been air power, very limited teams on the ground, some intelligence, supplies – but not a full-blooded and bloody Iraq-style or Afghanistan-style intervention.

Nor, in point of fact, has it been like the bombing of Serbia in 1999. Despite predictably hitting the wrong targets several times, western air power has been used with as much precision as possible and a fair amount of restraint.

Aims & means

Take three key factors in the Libyan war – the limited but growing military capacity of the Interim Transitional National Council’s forces, the unlimited aims of both the insurgents and the western interventionist governments, and the limited means those same western powers are prepared to employ. Add them up and the result must be that the claimed urgency of the intervention in March and April morphs into the slog towards Tripoli in June and July.

Media commentators worry about stalemate and partition. I don’t think we are there yet. Seeming stalemate is likely a staging post on the way to a win for one side or the other and partition is much less likely – because the country is much less partition-able – than most commentators seem to think.

Different kinds of costs

“A win for one side or the other” – there’s the rub, isn’t it? A win for whom? The issue can be put this bluntly: if the western interventionists – the UK, USA and France – have, first, the will-power and, of second importance, the resources to sustain the action against Qaddafi, then the dictator will be defeated. If not, he will triumph and his vengeance will be appalling.

The human costs of this will be overwhelming and that is the argument that many advocates of intervention will use to support seeing it through to the end. But I have been round the block too many times to believe the human costs will be the decisive factor in whether outside intervention continues.

It is the political costs for Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy that matter most. These would be so great – for them personally, for the governments they lead, for the influence of their states in the coming decade – and they must be so clear about those costs, that I find it inconceivable they will back down.

Summer of decision

This month or next will demonstrate whether that assumption is right or wrong. It is possible that the approach to Tripoli of the ground forces of the Interim Transitional National Council will trigger a second wave of popular uprising in the capital and Qaddafi’s regime will implode. If not, if a decisive result is not on the immediate horizon, the west will either get out before the end of August or stay in as long as it takes.

Political calendars make it impossible for the British or French forces to be pulled back from about September onwards. In the UK’s case it’s to do with the party conference season in September/October and the return of Parliament from summer break. In France, it’s to do with the slow burn of the Presidential elections. Obama, I think, pretty much has to go with whichever option his European allies choose.

So my assumption is that if they are still bombing in September, they will carry on even if takes into 2012 – and at some point there will be more Special Forces boots on the ground in Libya.

And after

What comes after is unclear. In my Public Policy Article, referenced above, I raise the issue of what it will mean for Libyan democratic politics after Qaddafi, if the people have sovereignty because of external military action.

Politics does not move in a straight line. The military instrument is hard to use with precision. These issues are complicated. I wish everybody on all sides of the arguments would recognise those simple truths.

One response to “Libya: the (next) moment of decision is approaching

  1. Bernd Papenkort

    I fully agree to Dan’s assessment. There are two interesting questions: (1) What was the national (?) interest for France and UK to start this activity. In the world of realpolitik “human rights” were never a cause to engage in such an undertaking. Was it personal aims of Sarkozy ( to demonstzrate his “skills” & distract from own problems at home) and Cameron jumped on board – for what reason?

    (2) The mismatch with humanitarian interventions.Too often in the last decades Western powers were easily using their military instrument for the sake of “humanitarian intervention”. But, with such political restraints that the military leadership can never guarantee “mission accomplished”. What we experience in the best case is a muddling through liked described in Dan’s block with frustrations on all sides. It may be worth, before Sarkozy and Cameron start such enterprises, to ask their responsible staffs to define clearly “national interests” before the first plane takes off and to be aware that the military tool has difficulties to be used along the lines “please, become only half pregnant”. This does not speak against political oversight and limited and confined use of the military, but only for a clearly defined purpose and well thought aims and concepts.

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