31 August 2011
Libya: Is Force an Instrument of Love?
By Gwynne Dyer
Somebody (perhaps a Jesuit) once said: “Force is an instrument of love in a world of complexity and chance.” I’d be grateful if someone could tell me where that comes from, but it has stayed with me for a long time because it embodies a kind of truth. Sometimes you have to use force to protect innocent people from harm. Which brings us to Libya.
The war there is effectively over, and the Good Guys won. The dictator’s delusional son, Saif al-Islam, still promises that “victory is near,” but he will soon be dead, in prison, or (if he is lucky) in exile. The only problem is that the Good Guys who mattered most were actually foreigners.
The National Transitional Council, the shambolic proto-government that claims to run the rebel-held areas (now more than nine-tenths of the country) is well aware of the problem. When the United Nations began talking about sending peacekeeping troops to Libya to help stabilise the country, their reply was a resounding “no”.
That’s understandable. The NTC has enough difficulty getting other Arabs and Africans to accept that their revolution is a legitimate, home-grown affair without having
armed foreigners traipsing around the country. It’s painful even to admit that NATO functioned as the rebels’ air force, and that they could not have won without it. But it’s true.
It was the decision by France and Britain to commit their air forces to the defence of the rebels in eastern Libya that saved them from being overrun by Gaddafy’s forces in the early days of the revolt. Other Western countries sent combat aircraft to join them (although the United States drew back after the first few days), and Gaddafy’s army was stopped just short of Benghazi.
Equally important was UN resolution 1973 in March, which authorising willing UN member countries to use “all necessary means” (i.e. force) to protect the Libyan population from its own government. It specifically mentioned Benghazi, the capital of the rebel-held territory, as an area to be protected. And even Russia and China did not veto the resolution, although they had deep misgivings about where it might lead.
They were right. It led to a NATO-led aerial campaign (supported by a few planes from a couple of small Arab countries) that went far beyond protecting the Libyan population from attacks by Gaddafy’s forces. His troops were struck from the air wherever they were, on the flimsy argument that they might be planning to attack civilians one of these days.
Similarly, any building with pro-Gaddafy Libyan troops in or around it was designated a “command and control centre”, and therefore a legitimate target. The targeting was precise, hurting few civilians, but the bombing was intense. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the Royal Canadian Air Force, with only six F-18s involved, dropped 240 bombs on Libya in the first two months of the operation, all of them 227-kg. (500-lb.) laser-guided weapons.
It was these relentless air attacks that eroded Gaddafy’s forces so much that the rebel fighters in the west were finally able to seize Tripoli last week. The rebels could not have won without NATO. So were NATO’s actions legitimate, especially since they stretched the UN resolution’s terms almost to the breaking point? Even more importantly, were they morally correct?
Let’s leave the legality to the lawyers, who will gladly argue either side of that question for a fee. The real question is moral. Was NATO an instrument of love in this instance? Were its bombs?
Cheap cynicism says no, of course. It was “all about oil”, or the West seeking military bases in Libya, or French President Nicolas Sarkozy looking for a cheap foreign policy success before next year’s election. But cheap cynicism is sometimes wrong.
You don’t get oil more cheaply by invading a country: look at Iraq, which has sold all its oil at the world market price for the past eight years despite US military occupation. Why on Earth would the West want military bases in Libya? It already has them nearby, in Italy. And Sarkozy took a very big risk in sending French planes to back the rebels, although he must have known that any political boost he got would be over by next year.
If the foreigners’ motives really were humanitarian – they wanted to stop Gaddafy’s atrocious regime from killing his own subjects, and thought that Libyans would be better off without him – then they actually were using force as an instrument of love. Not “love” as in the love songs, but love meaning a genuine concern for the welfare of others
Most resorts to force do not meet this criterion (although those using the force generally claim that they do). The United States did not invade Iraq out of concern for the welfare of Iraqis, for example. But once in a while there is a shining exception, and this is one of those times.
The British, French, Canadians, Swedes, Qataris and so on would not have done it if it involved large casualties in their own forces. (In fact, they had no casualties.) Most Western soldiers didn’t think the operation would succeed in removing Gaddafy, and the outcome has been greeted with surprise and relief in most of the capitals that sent aircraft. But they did it, and that counts for a lot.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 11 and 12. (“Similarly…weapons”; and “Cheap…year”)
24 August 2011
Libya: What Now?
By Gwynne Dyer
In war, the moral is to the physical as three to one, said Napoleon, and the Libyan rebels certainly demonstrated the truth of that. Gaddafi had more soldiers, they were better trained and much better armed, and they did not lack courage. But the rebels firmly believed that they were bound to win, and once Gaddafi’s troops also became infected with that belief their resistance collapsed.
However, Napoleon also said that God is on the side with the best artillery, and the rebels had nothing bigger than light anti-aircraft guns. Their real artillery was the NATO air forces that conducted a five-month bombing campaign on their behalf.
Even though there are technically no foreign “boots on the ground” in Libya, this heavy reliance on foreign military support makes the rebels forces beholden to the West in the eyes of some Libyans and many other Arabs. So they are, but as the leaders of the revolution try to make the tricky transition from dictatorship and civil war to an open and democratic country, the influence of the foreigners may prove useful.
Consider the tasks that the revolutionaries now face. First, the rebel leaders must prevent their victorious troops from taking revenge on the regime’s erstwhile supporters. The last thing they need is a bloodbath in Tripoli or anywhere else.
Then they must choose some thousands of today’s ragtag fighters to serve as a conventional and disband the rest of the militia forces that sprang up to fight Gaddafi’s army. A lot of people who fought for the revolution are going to feel cheated, and they still have guns.
The revolutionaries must then find a way of dealing with Gaddafi (if and when they catch him) that does not deepen the already grave divisions in Libyan society. Many people from Gaddafi’s tribe and its allies fought for the regime, and half the families in the country include someone who worked for Gaddafi’s government at some point during his 43-year rule.
Then they have to write a constitution, hold a free election, and form a legitimate government to which the National Transitional Council (NTC) will hand over all its powers. They also have to restart the economy and get money into people’s hands as quickly as possible. Many Libyans have not been paid for four months now.
That task will be a lot easier if the country’s foreign currency reserves, much of which are held abroad in accounts that were frozen by the United Nations during the conflict in order to cut off Gaddafi’s cash flow, are now released rapidly to the new Libyan government. It will also want to borrow a lot of money abroad to repair the oil facilities that were damaged in the fighting and get exports moving again.
That money will almost certainly be made available, because Libya has enough oil reserves to repay it tenfold, if necessary. But then the going gets harder.
Many people in the rebel leadership understand that the country’s strong tribal loyalties are divisive, but keeping them out of democratic politics is not going to be easy. It’s especially hard because there are no powerful civic organisations (professional associations, trade unions, etc.) to serve as an alternate focus for political activity.
Moreover, the revolution succeeded early in the east (Cyrenaica), while most of the west (Tripolitania) stayed under Gaddafi’s rule almost down to the end. So the NTC, which is only now moving from Benghazi in the east to Tripoli in the west, has a strong eastern bias. Yet the west has two-thirds of the population, and it was the fighters in the west who carried the main burden of the fighting.
Libyan society was atomised under Gaddafi, quite deliberately, in order to make each individual isolated and powerless when dealing with the regime. Now all those horizontal links that are collectively known as “civil society” must be recreated, without allowing tribal and regional loyalties to take over. Which is why the fact that the revolution has powerful foreign supporters could be useful to Libya.
Britain and France, in particular, have committed a great deal of political capital to the success of the Libyan revolution. They carried out more than half of the air strikes in support of the rebels, while other European democracies and Canada, all NATO members, did the rest. (The United States only contributed surveillance capabilities and occasional Predator drone strikes after the first few weeks.)
These European allies need to justify their intervention to their own people, so they will do everything in their power to make sure that there are no massacres, that Gaddafi and his close allies, when caught, are handed over to the International Criminal Court for trial (much better for the stability of the country than trying him in Libya), and that the process of building a democratic government in Libya goes as smoothly as possible.
They have a great deal of leverage over the rebel forces at the moment, and they will use it to keep the revolution on the tracks. Despite all the obstacles to a smooth transition that Libya faces, the outcome here could be surprisingly positive.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The revolutionaries…rule”; and “Moreover…fighting”)
28 May 2011
Libya: Running Out of Options
by Gwynne Dyer
They swore blind that there would never be foreign “boots on the ground” in Libya, but as NATO’s campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime enters its third month it is getting a lot closer to the ground. It started with Tomahawk missiles fired from over the horizon; then it was fighter-bombers firing guided weapons from a safe height; now it’s helicopter gunships skimming the ground at zero altitude. They’re getting desperate.
In London on 25 May, Prime Minister David Cameron said that “the president and I agree we should be turning up the heat on Libya.” Standing beside him, President Barack Obama declared that, “given the progress that has been made over the last several weeks,” there will be no “let-up in the pressure that we are applying.”
And you have to ask, what progress? The front lines between Gaddafi’s forces and the rebels are still approximately where they were two months ago, except around the city of Misrata, where the insurgents have pushed the besieging troops back some kilometres (miles).
Tripoli, the capital, is still firmly under Gaddafi’s control. There has been no overt defiance of the regime there for many weeks, and the city is not even suffering significant shortages except for fuel. Are Obama and Cameron deluding themselves, or are they just trying to fool everybody else?
Maybe both – and meanwhile they are cranking up the aerial campaign against Gaddafi in the hope that enough bombs may make their claims come true. They must have been told a dozen times by their military advisers that bombing alone almost never wins a war, but they have waded into the quagmire too far to turn back now, and they have no other military options that the United Nations resolution would allow them to use.
They are already acting beyond the limits set by UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which on 17 March authorised the use of limited force to protect Libyan civilians. It has become a campaign to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi, and they hardly even bother to deny it any more.
“I believe that we have built enough momentum that, as long as we sustain the course we are on, (Gaddafi) will step down,” said Obama in London. “Ultimately this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we are able to wear down the regime forces.” Well maybe so, and maybe not, but in either case that’s not what Resolution 1973 said. No wonder Russia condemned the latest air raids as a “gross violation” of the resolution.
Russia did not want to stand by and let Gaddafi massacre innocent civilians, which seemed imminent when the defences of the rebels in eastern Libya were collapsing in mid-March, so it let the resolution pass. So did China, India and Brazil, which would normally oppose any military intervention by western powers in a Third World country. But it was all decided in a weekend, and they did not think it through.
Neither did France, Britain, the United States, Canada and a few other NATO countries, which immediately committed their air forces to the task of saving the rebels. They destroyed Gaddafi’s tanks and saved the city of Benghazi, but then what? There was no plan, no “exit strategy”, and so they have ended up with a very unpleasant choice.
Either they stop the war and leave Gaddafi in control of the larger part of a partitioned Libya, or they escalate further in the hope that at some point Gaddafy’s supporters abandon him. The US Air Force had a name for this strategy during the Vietnam War: they were trying to find the North Vietnamese regime’s “threshold of pain.” They never did find it in Vietnam, but NATO is still looking for it in Libya.
We’ll never know if Gaddafi would really have slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians if Benghazi had fallen. He was making blood-curdling threats about what he would do when the city fell, and he has certainly killed lots of people in the past, but with the eyes of the whole world on him he might not have done it this time.
Nevertheless, that threat was what created the extraordinary (though temporary) consensus at the Security Council. It was, for the West as well as for the other major powers that backed the original resolution, a largely humanitarian action with little by the way of ulterior motives. (And don’t say “oil”; that’s just lazy thinking.)
Gaddafi has been playing by the rules for the last five years, renouncing terrorism and dismantling his fantasy “nuclear weapons programme.” He has been exporting all the oil he could pump. He wasn’t threatening Western interests, and yet NATO embarked on a military campaign that it KNEW was likely to end in tears in order to stop him.
Let us give NATO governments credit for letting their hearts overrule their heads. Let’s also acknowledge that they have been meticulous and largely successful in avoiding civilian casualties in their bombing campaign. But it isn’t working.
So what do they do now? They can escalate for a few more weeks, and hope that the strategy that has failed for the last two months will finally succeed. That might happen, but it’s not likely to. In which case the only remaining option will be to accept a cease-fire, and the partition of Libya between the Gaddafi regime and the “Transitional National Council” in Benghazi.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13. (“We’ll…him”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
4 April 2011
Obama, Bush (Senior) and Libya
by Gwynne Dyer
Once upon a time, a U.S. president was appalled by the actions of a murderous Arab dictator. He got the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force to stop the dictator, put together a coalition of NATO and Arab countries, and did precisely that. Sound familiar?
The president’s name was George Herbert Walker Bush, and the Arab dictator was called Saddam Hussein. Saddam had invaded the sovereign state of Kuwait, and the U.N. authorized Bush to drive him out again. It did not authorize him to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam – so he didn’t.
The senior Bush has been vilified ever since for sticking to the letter of the U.N. resolution, and not using his army to overthrow Saddam Hussein when he had the chance. What are the odds that President Barack Obama will do the same and not overthrow Moammar Gadhafi in Libya? Pretty good, if you believe what he says.
“Our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives,” Obama said in his speech on March 28, denying that the real goal of the air campaign against Gadhafi’s military forces was regime change. The United States had acted militarily because it “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” but there would be no foreign troops in Libya and no direct attempt to overthrow Gadhafi.
If Obama sticks to that resolve, then there is a very good chance that Gadhafi will still be in power, in the western half of a divided Libya, five years from now. The cities of Tripolitania (western Libya) have already been reduced to submission by his forces, with the sole exception of Misrata, as the rebels in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) show no sign of being able to defeat his army in the field.
Should Gadhafi try once more to reconquer Cyrenaica, then the air-power of the coalition (basically the NATO countries but also including a few Arab countries) will stop him again. But if he just consolidates his hold on the west, who’s going to force him out? Certainly not the hysterical rabble of rebel fighters who repeatedly charge west along the coast highway, and then come fleeing back as soon as they stumble into the first ambush.
U.S. troops could easily drive Gadhafi from power if they were let off the leash, but Security Council Resolution 1973 does not permit the entry of foreign troops into Libya. Moreover, no Arab country wants to see this too-familiar sight once again.
If Obama abides by the terms of the U.N. resolution, however, he is likely to end up in the same awkward position as his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush. He will have sent U.S. forces into battle, and yet he will not have got rid of the bad guy. But is that such a terrible thing?
George Bush senior was acting to repel an unprovoked invasion when he committed American forces to the liberation of Kuwait, but he was also trying to restore the role of the U.N. Security Council as the bulwark against aggressive war. The Cold War had just ended, and Saddam’s invasion of Iraq was an opportunity to demonstrate how the system should work.
That’s why the senior Bush would not exceed the limits of his authority as an enforcer of the U.N. rules against aggression. The U.N. had not authorized him to overthrow Saddam, and so he did not. He then muddied the waters by calling on the Kurds and Shias of Iraq to rebel, and standing by while Saddam massacred them, but that does not invalidate his original decision.
Fast forward 20 years, and Barack Obama is trying to enforce a fragile new U.N. rule: that the Security Council may authorize military intervention if massive abuses of human rights are being committed by the government. He has carried out the intervention, and the wholesale massacres that would probably have occurred if Gadhafi’s troops had overrun Cyrenaica have been averted.
That’s the limit of Obama’s U.N. mandate, so, like George H.W. Bush, he should now stop. The aerial campaign was meant to prevent mass killing, not to provide the rebels with close air support in what has become a civil war.
One side in this civil war is run by a brutal and cynical dictator, while the people on the other side are brave idealists seeking democracy, but that doesn’t mean that foreigners should decide the outcome. That would be contrary to international law – and besides, if there is to be a real democratic revolution in Libya, then the Libyans must do it for themselves.
If that means that Libya must spend some months or years as a divided country, with the western half still under Gadhafi’s yoke, then so be it. The only legitimate tools that foreigners may use against him are financial sanctions, trade boycotts and diplomatic isolation.
Cut off his cash flow, and Gadhafi might fall quite quickly. Or he might not, which would be a pity. But the only reason that Resolution 1973 got the support of the Arab League, and abstentions by China, Russia and India, was that it authorized military action to “protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack.” And that is all that the coalition should do.