The Daily Star
Friday, March 25 2011
By Michael Glackin
After a series of embarrassing fumbles, the British government appears to have finally come to grips with how to deal with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Or has it?
When it comes to Libya, Prime Minister David Cameron has been guilty of more flip flops than an Olympic gymnast. Still, his role in the United Nations’ decision to protect innocent civilians should be welcomed. Unfortunately, while the West sat on its hands for a month, Gadhafi launched a vicious rearguard action against the myriad forces opposed to his regime, leaving thousands dead and allowing him reassert control over the west of the country.
The problem now that the West has finally taken action is to determine what happens next. A Foreign Office official told me that the British government’s objective in opposing Gadhafi is to ensure that there is “a unified Libya under a central government that is more open and democratic, not run by Gadhafi, which does not pose external threats either in the region or more broadly.”
This is a huge change from Cameron’s earlier statements – not to mention the United Nation mandate which does not mention regime change. Increasingly, the statements from the government are starting to resemble former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ever shifting objectives in Iraq. The Foreign Office official declined to explain how Gadhafi would be deposed, but British policy, and with it that of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the United States President Barack Obama, still appears to be tied in to three doubtful outcomes.
First, the hope that coalition air attacks on Gadhafi’s military machine, which have successfully grounded Libya’s air force and destroyed its air defenses, will push the Libyan leader’s armed forces to desert him to the extent that his regime implodes.
Second, and much more unlikely, is the hope the bombing has done enough damage to enable the rebels in the east to mount their own counterattack against Gadhafi’s forces. Unfortunately the rebels holed up in Benghazi are a ragtag bunch and extremely unlikely to topple the regime on their own. According to defense analyst Anthony Cordesman, from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the rebels are “divided, lack discipline and structure and are both poorly supplied and untrained in using advanced weapons.” It is unlikely that the West will send these people arms and the American-European coalition does not want to be transformed into the aerial arm of the rebellion.
The third outcome is what politicians like to call “decapitating” the regime, or more simply killing Gadhafi. The United Kingdom’s chief of the defense staff, Sir David Richards, was slapped down by the government for insisting that assassination was not an option after coalition planes dropped a bomb on Gadhafi’s private compound last weekend, in what looked like an obvious attempt to kill him.
All three options are weak platforms to support the view that military action will be short and accelerate Gadhafi’s demise. In fact, far from Gadhafi’s regime collapsing, it is actually the coalition that is now showing distinct signs of breaking apart.
Partly, that’s because several key questions remain unanswered. It is unclear who would take over were Gadhafi to be overthrown or killed. Readers of American diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks will also be aware of concerns within the U.S. government that eastern Libya is a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Any new Libyan government is likely to require a good deal of support from the West, and it is against this backdrop that many in the U.K. are firmly opposed to the current intervention, and to further involvement in Libya.
Media reports that firing a single U.K. Tomahawk missile costs around $1.4 million, at a time when Gulf Arab countries are filling their coffers on the back of sky-high oil prices, sits equally badly with many in the British public. That is particularly the case when at least three of the Gulf states – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen (not to mention Syria) – are using force to crush pro-democracy movements.
Hardly helping matters is that Washington has been looking for the Libyan exit since the first coalition airplane took off. Barack Obama’s interest in foreign affairs seems limited to finding destinations for state visits with his photogenic wife. This poses a problem for Sarkozy and Cameron. Despite France being the first in the air last week, around half of the missions currently being conducted over Libya are being carried out by American pilots and, so far, all combat operations have taken place under American command.
Moreover, while Sarkozy and Cameron are united in support of military action, the European Union is not. The EU’s foreign affairs chief, the hapless Baroness Ashton, sided with Germany in opposing the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. Then there’s the unconcealed opposition of key NATO member Turkey to both the no-fly zone and to any further military action.
As things currently stand, it seems inevitable that the coalition will have to put boots on the ground at some point. The promise implicit in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 that there will be “no occupation force” does not necessarily rule out a temporary deployment of troops. Whether this is done through the dispatching of Arab troops remains to be seen. Bearing in mind that Qatar is the only Arab state that has committed any active military support to the current operation – four warplanes – it is more likely that the West will have to act alone, raising the specter of the bloody occupation of Iraq.
The coalition has saved Benghazi, but if Gadhafi survives this will create a stalemate, as it did in Iraq after 1991. At the time, Saddam Hussein’s regime survived while Iraqis continued to suffer. To believe that “intervention lite,” in the shape of a no-fly zone, can successfully safeguard Libyan civilians ignores recent history and Resolution 1973 itself. Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy have encouraged Libyans to stand up against Gadhafi’s repression and it would immoral to leave him in place to harm his people as the west abandoned Shiite rebels to their fate in Iraq. Anything less than Gadhafi’s departure prolongs the agony of those whom the coalition insists it is protecting.
Rarely has the West more clearly exposed itself to charges of hypocrisy in its policy and dealings in the Arab world than in its cozying up to Gadhafi in recent years. But now, it has no other option than to see what it has started through to its logical conclusion.
Michael Glackin is former Managing Editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star.