How did an unenthusiastic debate on a no-fly zone in Libya turn into an armed international conflict?
A couple of weeks ago, I expressed serious reservations over the growing prospect of a western military intervention in Libya. A diplomatic resolution would have been far preferable. It remains a mystery in western capitals how the unenthusiastic consideration of a no-fly zone somehow morphed, with minimal public or political debate, into an ambitious and ever-widening program of ground attacks. Now, suddenly, the dogs of war have been let slip, and the actions of yet another “coalition” are in full swing.
The Chinese, Russians, and Germans, among others, have already stated their misgivings, and both Brazil and India abstained from the sweeping UN resolution, which authorized the air campaign. While conflict outcomes and their implications are inherently difficult to assess or predict, there are a number of factors in place which suggest that this episode may not end well.
Consider the following:
- This cannot, in the first instance, be considered a humanitarian intervention as set out under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. The explicit goal here is regime change, which means that western countries have essentially chosen sides in a regional and tribally based civil war – a highly fraught course, as experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has made clear.
- Passage of Resolution 1973 notwithstanding, the UN Security Council is not broadly representative of world power or opinion. Significantly, no Arab countries have yet joined in the bombing, the African Union is not supporting the intervention, and the Arab League, while initially on side, has since voiced concerns. The debilitating optics and catastrophic consequences of western warplanes again attacking an Islamic country and killing Muslims will almost certainly erode whatever support for the UN remains.
- The citizenry in participating western countries were not asked if they supported a more robust form of intervention than what had been initially mooted. Support for the present course is likely thin, and will become more so if the duration of the violence is protracted and non-combatant casualties mount.
- Diplomatic alternatives to the use of armed force were not exhausted earlier in the process, and there is no obvious post-war plan; today, there appears little room for any kind of negotiated settlement or face-saving way out. The lack of a dignified exit strategy could blow back, potentially encouraging Gadhafi to hang on.
- Gadhafi’s regime, however unpalatable, is not obviously more authoritarian or less representative than those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, or Yemen, all of which still enjoy western backing. Although no one will defend his appalling performance on issues of human rights or corruption, the colonel’s record of investing more than most in schools, hospitals, housing, and infrastructure, together with the contradictions embedded in the coalition’s approach, suggests a degree of policy incoherence which can only become more obvious over time.
And then, of course, there are the notorious what ifs. What if the U.S. decides that leading three wars simultaneously is too much, tries to hand off to NATO, and some members, including key players Turkey and Germany, balk? What if the campaign goes on and on, and nothing changes? What if Egypt intervenes to break the stalemate or to protect the remaining rebel strongholds of Benghazi and Tobruk, effectively partitioning the country?
These are early days. If the intervention does not drag on, produces limited collateral damage, averts a slaughter, and results in the formation of a popular, unified new government then it may yet prove justified. Taken in combination, however, the observations set out above are troubling, and underscore once again the inescapable problems associated with a reliance upon military force as the international policy instrument of choice.