A Libyan adventure that may end in tears

30 March 2011

The West’s Libyan initiative is an ill-considered reaction. The consequences could be dire

It was inevitable that Muammar Qaddafi’s rule would end in chaos. His personalised form of government provided no mechanism for the smooth transfer of the reins of government when the time came for him to go.

The largest error made by those who’ve sanctioned action to bring that date forward is that they had no idea Qaddafi himself was thinking. Now we know. Qaddafi says he’s staying and seems to have the capacity to resist those who want the opposite.

What many wishfully hoped would be a fast farewell has therefore become in reality a long goodbye. There are sombre precedents. Sadddam Hussain held power for 13 years after his defeat in 1991. The world’s been trying to dislodge Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe for more than a decade, but he’s still there. An improvised coalition is, meanwhile, committed to a campaign with no clear objective or supreme commander. It looks like a mess because it is.

Qaddafi says he’s staying and seems to have the capacity to resist those who want the opposite

How did it happen?  The official answer is that high-minded Western leaders moved by the Libyan people’ suffering decided they could no longer tolerate Qaddafi’s murderous behavior. This is an emotionally appealing soundbite, but the truth is more complex.

Following the US-led coalition’s easy Iraq victory in April 2003, Middle East leaders were cowed by what the US military might could do. In December that year, Qaddafi announced Libya was scrapping its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and wanted to co-operate with the US and the West.

The move was welcome evidence of Qaddafi’s pragmatic realism. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair met Qaddafi in Libya in March 2004 to forge an unlikely partnership between London and Tripoli. Practically everyone approved. Complaints that Qaddafi’s Libya was a repressive police state that could not and should not prevail were deflected. Libya would be encouraged to change, not attacked like Iraq was.

The approach seemed to be working until the Arab protest movement that America backed this spring found an echo in Libya on 15 February. Within a week, Qaddafi had lost control of parts of eastern and western Libya. Thousands of migrant workers fleeing Libya were filmed in misery around the border with Libya. Reports of government brutality and Qaddafi’s threats to eliminate rebels shocked public opinion in Europe and North America.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron, expressing the feelings of many Britons, was the first leader of a country with a seat on the UN Security Council to call for Qaddafi’s departure. Speaking on 28 February, he also said the UN should establish a no-fly zone. Humanitarian action and regime-change had been deliberately and irretrievably conflated.

France was unambiguously committed to regime change and was the first to recognise the mysterious rebel National Transitional Government as Libya’s legitimate government. The Pentagon, in contrast, initially ruled out military action against Libya. Obama was elected to end America’s war in Iraq, not to start a new one. The US military said it was already overstretched. But Obama was badgered on 15 March to back a no-fly zone. The White House was improvising, it seemed, like everyone else.

Qaddafi could consequently assert with some justice that the rebellion was a foreign conspiracy and his army’s advance towards Benghazi became more urgent. The UN Security Council’s no-fly zone resolution 1973 was passed with Russia and China abstaining on 17 March. On Saturday, a hurried summit in Paris in support of the Libyan people agreed to act to enforce the resolution. Minutes after it closed, French President Sarkozy said that French jets were already in action. The coalition may have saved Libya’s rebels, but a new Middle East war had been started that won’t be so easily stopped.

The West has in this manner stumbled into an adventure whose outcome is uncertain. Unless Qaddafi quits, or a coalition bomb accidentally ends his life, Libya will probably divided into two mutually-antagonistic parts: one in the west controlled by a regime that the international community won’t recognise and another in the east that it probably can’t. About 2 million barrels a day (b/d) of crude oil production has been knocked out and 1,100 miles of Mediterranean coastline will be effectively ungoverned. Yet another part of the Arab world will be doomed to a lengthy period of instability and destruction. And America and the West will be the ones that will have to sort the shambles out because they, through their errors and omissions, were the ones who created it.

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