27 March 2011

Thoughts on the intervention in Libya

After about a month of protests which escalated into serious fighting, during which Libya’s anti-Gaddafi rebels made some significant gains but were then driven back by Gaddafi’s much better equipped, trained and organised armed forces, on 17 March the United Nations Security Council surprised everyone by passing Security Council Resolution No. 1973 which, as summarised by Wikipedia here:

-  demands the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians
-  imposes a no-fly zone over Libya
-  authorises all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, except for a "foreign occupation force"
-  strengthens the earlier arms embargo and particularly action against mercenaries, by allowing for forcible inspections of ships and planes
-  imposes a ban on all Libyan-designated flights
-  imposes an asset freeze on assets owned by the Libyan authorities, and reaffirms that such assets should be used for the benefit of the Libyan people
-  extends the travel ban and assets freeze of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970 to a number of additional individuals and Libyan entities
-  establishes a panel of experts to monitor and promote sanctions implementation.

The Resolution was passed under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the Chapter which authorises the United Nations to make binding resolutions.

It is a messy resolution, as one would have to expect of a resolution which is designed to authorise a major intervention without galvanising the veto powers of China and Russia. It is surprisingly strong, in that it not only authorises the establishment of a no-fly zone, as expected, but it authorises “all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas”, short of a foreign occupation force. How events in Libya evolve will be very much a function of how that mandate is interpreted, and the political will that the nations participating in the intervention have to exploit it.

In view of the advances made by pro-Gaddafi forces in the days leading up to the passage of the resolution, and the imminent collapse of resistance before Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, there was palpable relief that the cavalry was coming to the rescue, a period of anxiety as it took time to deploy the necessary armed force, and then further relief as the intervening forces went inot action.

That understandable relief was accompanied by some thoughtful reflections about where this was all taking us.

The diplomatic editor of the Melbourne daily The Age, Daniel Flitton, was one of the first out of the blocks, with a piece in the 19 March edition, West will get to show that might is right.  He writes that the mandate is remarkably vague and that there will be disputes in coming weeks about what precisely it intends.  He goes on:

Let's be plain: a ''no-fly zone'' equals shooting down Muammar Gaddafi's planes and destroying his air defences. Dropping bombs is never surgical and a civil war cannot be won from the air. For the rebels to prevail, they will need support with arms and training. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said weapons may be sent to the rebels, and already there are reports of guns being trucked in from Egypt. This could be a dirty fight, even with a UN mandate.

Should these rebels carry out atrocities as revenge against Gaddafi's forces, their Western backers could be seen as complicit. And this will be seen very much as a Western war, despite the support of Arab countries.

He notes that the aftermath of the conflict will belong to the West, and with it the costs of rebuilding. He also notes the danger of building false expectations amongst the populace of other countries manifesting mass expressions of dissent. Read Flitton’s article in full here.

Writing in Salon on Saturday 19 March, before US forces had been deployed, blogger Glenn Greenwald focuses on the domestic politics of it in the US: how the war is sold, the contrasts with Iraq, and between the Bush and Obama Administrations, the potential for a heightened terrorist threat. After a round-up of commentary in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and elsewhere, he addresses the question of Congressional approval for any US deployment:

There's one other difference between Iraq and Libya worth noting:  at least with the former, there was a sustained, intense P.R. campaign to persuade the public to support it, followed by a cursory Congressional vote (agreed to by the Bush White House only once approval was guaranteed in advance).  By contrast, the intervention in Libya was presidentially decreed with virtually no public debate or discussion; it's just amazing how little public opinion or the consent of the citizenry matters when it comes to involving the country in a new war.  That objection can and should be obviated if Obama seeks Congressional approval before deploying the U.S. military.  On some level, it would be just a formality -- it's hard to imagine the Congress ever impeding a war the President wants to fight -- but at least some pretense of democratic and Constitutional adherence should be maintained.  

Read Greenwald’s post in full here.

Writing in 18 March edition of The Guardian, Abdel al-Bari Atwan raises and discusses a number of questions:

- The motives behind the intervention

... as I write, al-Jazeera is broadcasting scenes of carnage from Sanaa, Yemen, where at least 40 protesters have been shot dead. But there will be no UN no-fly zone to protect Pakistani civilians from US attacks, or to protect Yemenis. One cannot help but question the selective involvement of the west in the so-called "Arab spring" series of uprisings.

-  The main players in the intervention are Britain and France, with US involvement likely:

If Libya's neighbours, Egypt and Tunisia, were playing the leading role that would be something to celebrate.  Democratic countries helping their neighbours would have been in the spirit of the Arab uprisings, and would have strengthened the sense that Arabs can take control of their future.

-  Gaddafi is a master strategist and the intervention plays into his hands:

At the moment he has little, if any, public support; his influence is limited to his family and tribe. But he may use this intervention to present himself as the victim of post-colonialist interference in pursuit of oil. He is likely to pose the question that is echoing around the Arab world – why wasn't there a no-fly zone over Gaza when the Israelis were bombarding it in 2008/9?

-  The long-term impact of the intervention:

Libya may end up divided into the rebel-held east and a regime stronghold in the rest of the country which would include the oil fields and the oil terminal town al-Brega. There is a strong risk, too, that it will become the region's fourth failed state, joining Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.

-  There is no guarantee that military intervention will result in Gaddafi's demise.

-  The worry that the Arab spring will be derailed by events in Libya.

Read  Abdel al-Bari Atwan’s article in full here.

Professor Juan Cole, R.P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan and author of Engaging the Muslim World (New York, Palgrave Macmillan 2009) wrote in his blog Informed Comment on 21 March that the no-fly zone over Libya is risky but can succeed under certain conditions:

-  It should not be open-ended, but rather should have an expiration date.

-  It should be a no-fly zone, not a war on the Qaddafi regime.

-  Once the no-fly zone is in place ... brokers should intervene to negotiate a diplomatic solution.

-  Officers who committed war crimes ... must be prosecuted, but not everyone in the Libyan military should be tarred with that brush.

-  Amnesty might be offered to pro-Qaddafi officers and politicians provided they break with the dictator and send him into exile.

-  Countries opposed to or lukewarm toward the no-fly zone, but which are themselves democracies, such as India, Algeria and Russia, could be enlisted to meet with the officer corps in Tripoli and impress on them the need for a transition to parliamentary elections.

Noting that Kosovo as a state originated in an externally enforced no fly zone, Cole concludes:

NATO military forces flying in response to the UNSC resolution must seek to replicate the successes in Kosovo and not the failures in Iraq.

Read Juan Coles full post here.

In a post entitled The Libyan Revolution is Dead: Notes for an Autopsy, on his blog Zero Anthropology, Maximilian Forte, Associate Professor in Anthropology at Concordia University in Canada, begins:

The “Arab Spring” was a short one; what follows, another NATO Summer, will last much longer.

He continues:

If you do not think about it, there is a lot to cheer about the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, against what this time has been a mountain of advice, questions, and critiques from all imaginable political quarters ... This is no longer a Libyan story – that chapter is now closed. My autopsy is divided into several broad categories of actors: the humanitarians, the rebels, the international organizations, the mass media, and the Americans. Finally, what we should be watching in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.

He then goes on to provide a critique of each of these categories of “the criminals responsible for killing the Libyan revolution”.  The humanitarians ignore slaughter elsewhere and have validated the military industrial complex; elements of the rebel leadership have stained their own name, and stained their revolution; the five countries that merely “abstained” from voting (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Germany opted for diplomatic wiggle room and plausible deniability, and the Arab League is a club of dictators; Al Jazeera’s coverage has been heavily slanted, in terms of amount of coverage, to the story of Libya, rather than other cases where tyrants were beating and killing peaceful and unarmed protesters at the very same time; and the Americans, having found “another crazy murderous Arab, easy to mock and hold up as the target of mass orchestrated contempt” will be fighting “the perfect war”, with no troops on the ground .

Forte concludes with a list of fourteen things to watch for, many of which are fair questions (“How will the U.S. manage yet another war added to its roster?”), but the last one of which is perhaps indicative of the general tone:

14. If this ends up being a fiasco, or with the need for foreign troops on the ground, will it be the final act that breaks the back of empire?

So, with the possible exception of Professor Forte himself, everyone has got the Libya situation wrong, even if they are “well-intentioned”, that hardy all-purpose put-down.  One is left, however, to infer that the intervention, which he sees as an exercise in “humanitarian imperialism”, should not have taken place, because while he is caustic about the approach of all the above-mentioned groups, nowhere does he actually make a forthright statement that the Libyans (all of them) should be left to their fate, whatever that fate might be.

Professor Forte’s post may be accessed here.

For what it is worth, my views on the Libyan intervention, on the basis of what I know now (I am not an expert on the country, although I did visit it in 1980), are as follows:

(1)    My starting point regarding any military intervention anywhere any time is to regard the idea with profound suspicion.  It is almost never a good idea.  Many innocent people will be killed, there is too much potential for unintended consequences, and once the fog of war closes in the situation almost inevitably develops a life of its own, following a trajectory which no-one intended and no-one wanted.

(2)    I have a certain amount of sympathy for those like Professor Forte who point to the inconsistencies in the West’s approaches to humanitarian intervention, but the fact that we failed to intervene in other places on other occasions, or in other places warranting attention at the present time, does not shed much light on how we should have responded to the situation which has confronted us in Libya over the last few weeks. Saying you failed to help A is not in itself an argument for failing to help B.  The matters to be decided in relation to Libya were, simply, whether or not to intervene, and what form any possible intervention might most usefully take.

(3)    There is an old saying that the opportunity of a lifetime must be seized within the lifetime of the opportunity and at the time the decision was made the window seemed to be closing very rapidly – indeed I spent the next 24 hour wondering whether it was not too late.  Gaddafi’s forces were on the threshold of entering the principal centre of resistance, Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, a city of about 700,000 people, possibly swollen by refugees from other towns.  The treatment that Gaddafi’s forces have been meting out to the besieged population of Misratah in the west of the country is a guide to what the population of the main centre of resistance could expect. There is no reason to believe that Gaddafi would not have large-scale indiscriminate killing in Benghazi had his forces been able to enter the town, and once they had entered the urban environment, any military intervention from the air would have been all but impossible without a large number of civilian casualties.

(4)    This means that the international community was faced with a choice between intervening and standing back and watching a massacre.  Apart from the morality of a choice to do nothing, I think that the sympathetic attention that the plight of the anti-Gaddafi forces was receiving in the world’s mainstream media would have made the “do nothing” option difficult in a number of Western countries.

(5)    It is easy to be critical of the West for deciding to intervene in Libya when it had failed to do so in other places equally deserving of humanitarian intervention.  In any consideration of intervention, however, there are questions of logistic feasibility to be considered.  Libya is a much more straightforward candidate for intervention than, say, Darfur or the eastern region of the Congo. While it is a country larger than Queensland, it has a vast desert or semi-desert inland and the vast bulk of the population is strung out in cities and towns along or within easy reach of the Mediterranean coast.  They are connected by a single main road passing through an arid landscape in which there is very little cover from the air. Accordingly, once a no-fly zone has been established, air interdiction of ground forces is relatively straightforward.

(6)    There is a strategic reason for intervening as well, in my view, one which is of central importance to the entire “Arab spring”.  The upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt occurred with relatively little loss of life, and ended in a peaceful transition with the leader leaving the country or standing aside.  If Gaddafi had been able to demonstrate that all that is necessary to retain power is to be ruthless enough in suppressing the dissenters, this may well have had an impact on the decision-making of other leaders facing political turmoil.

(7)    The tricky part is that the intervention has been cobbled together in such haste that it is by no means clear what end-state is intended to be achieved. There may be as many different versions of the desired end-state as there are participants.  As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated, it is always worth considering carefully what happens next once the relatively straightforward initial military campaign has been carried out.

(8)    One particularly tricky aspect of the intervention will prove in practice to be the fact that the mandate is to employ all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, not to help one side or the other to win a civil war.  Taken at face value this means that if the anti-Gaddafi forces manage to recover their equilibrium sufficiently and acquire the materiel to go on the offensive, the intervening forces will have a responsibility to protect the cities and towns of the Gaddafi-controlled areas from them.

(9)    That all sounds like a recipe for an enforced stalemate, unless Gaddafi can be induced quite soon to leave the country, and some sort of national reconciliation process can be set up before positions become too entrenched and there is too much further killing.

These are my preliminary thoughts, and no doubt there will be much more to say as the situation evolves.  The whole exercise will probably end in tears, but it seems that it was bound to do that anyway.  About the only thing we can be sure of is that there will be many surprises along the road and things will not turn out as most of us expect.

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