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A confused western intervention

By Roberto Aliboni While strategically sensible, the western intervention in Libya to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 is confused in many respects. In particular, the western nations seem poorly aware or convinced of the intervention’s rationale; they oscillate between agreement and disagreement, so that the most relevant problem is that political leadership is conspicuously …


By Roberto Aliboni

While strategically sensible, the western intervention in Libya to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 is confused in many respects. In particular, the western nations seem poorly aware or convinced of the intervention’s rationale; they oscillate between agreement and disagreement, so that the most relevant problem is that political leadership is conspicuously lacking. Legal limitations on military action, coupled with political ineffectiveness, may lead to another inconclusive intervention and/or to solutions that would only open the door to further conflict. To hope to get out of the crisis, more effective diplomacy is badly needed.

If one looks back at the events that led to the intervention, it is clear that decisions at the outset were made less on the basis of clear-cut political and strategic objectives than on impulse. Thus, Bernard Henri-Levy reported gross human rights abuses to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who suddenly decided to intervene with one eye to justice and another on the polls. And US President Barack Obama was understandably moved by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s threat to search Benghazi house-by-house and crush the opposition like rats. Only after the intervention, were there efforts to make realities and objectives match, definitely a second-best method.

In particular, several allies insisted on shifting from the coalition of the willing that was jumpstarted by the French and British, to NATO. Italy promoted that shift very actively (in the dual context of a rift with Paris over migrants arriving in Italy from Tunisia being stopped from crossing to France, their true destination, and of resentment over a French attempt to take over, allegedly unfairly, an important Italian industrial dairy group). The step, however, was supported by other Europeans and even by Washington, so that the operation to implement Resolution 1973 was indeed transferred to NATO.

This move, in turn, took for granted the unity of strategic and political intent within the Atlantic Alliance, which soon proved to be very weak indeed, if not non-existent. Today, it is evident that NATO’s military arm has no effective political head and that, as in all the inconclusive wars launched in the 2000s, the head is saying that the intervention is not working because of military ineffectiveness and the arm is responding that the problem is the other way round. By the same token — a well-known recipe for defeat —while the Europeans are saying that the Americans are not helping, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently brusquely rebuked the Europeans for not contributing the necessary forces.

Even if it might be too late, let’s try to make sense of Libya. There are two valid strategic rationales for the intervention: (a) the future of North Africa in the context of the ongoing Arab ferment (so close in strengths and weaknesses to European national/democratic ferment in the nineteenth century); and (b) the unique opportunity for a western-Arab rapprochement offered by the specific context of Libya’s strategic predicament.

As for the future of North Africa, a democratic Libya would certainly be of great help to Tunisia. A democratic Tunisian-Libyan duo would have considerable influence on the rest of the Maghreb and North Africa. It would isolate the stolid and mummified Algerian military regime, compel the Moroccan monarchy to adopt a firmer and less tortuous path to constitutionality, and probably help Egypt’s emerging regime to become less neo-nationalist and more democratic (while what the Supreme Military Council in Egypt is doing suggests the reverse, not unlike what happened in Germany at the conclusion of the 1848 uprising). In the changing context of North Africa, a country like Libya that has been so marginal in the Arab political arena may ironically play a pivotal role in fostering change that is no less in the interests of the West than of the Arabs.

On the other hand, in Libya (like Kuwait in 1990-91) direct western intervention is possible in the wider framework of change initiated by the Arabs themselves. Elsewhere, such intervention might not be feasible without the risk of stirring up a region-wide conflict. In Libya, western military intervention is neither blocked nor constrained by security factors or strategic difficulties, as in Syria at present or in Bahrain earlier. Apart from Africa south of the Sahara, Libya has no regional strategic bonds or friends; it has repudiated and insulted the Arab League and kept aloof from Euro-Mediterranean political dealings. In sum, while the intervention appears useful and feasible, it does not risk prejudicing western-Arab relations. Quite the contrary, it looks like an opportunity for cooperating, if not coalescing.

Libya makes sense, in principle. However, for that sense to materialize, the western countries should try to recover a minimum of strategic cohesion. President Obama should understand that intervening in Libya — according to the arguments developed above — is in tune with, not in opposition to, his priority of winning over Arab hearts so that old and new differences can be surmounted. On the other hand, the Europeans should also understand that if Libya is pivotal in fostering change in North Africa, this development is in their primary interest, as it will provide substance to their dying Mediterranean policy. Both should understand that if North Africa consolidates as the first democratic platform in the Arab world, this would immensely help the women and men now struggling for freedom in the Levant and the Gulf, where conditions are more impervious to change and where they will have to experience a number of defeats before succeeding in establishing democracy.

Assuming the western/Libyan coalition manages to achieve strategic cohesion, the NATO allies need to work out a sensible political roadmap for concluding the conflict and establishing a viable new political regime. In fact, on this point there is convergence regarding the encouragement that British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently gave the Revolutionary Council in Benghazi, to begin thinking and implementing plans for the post-civil war situation. Very aptly, Hague warned the council to avoid the mistake made in post-Saddam Iraq by Americans and Shia, of de-baathification-style radical regime cleansing. In other words, the new Libyan leaders should prepare for a national reconciliation of sorts without waiting for Qaddafi’s personal fall and, on the contrary, accelerate both by trying to negotiate with his present supporters.

No solution is indeed possible — not even that suggested by Hague — unless Qaddafi exits. International diplomacy, from African leaders including South African President Jacob Zuma in person to Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, has already tried repeatedly and fruitlessly to convince Qaddafi to give up. Qaddafi does not agree to be excluded from a solution and Benghazi does not agree that he stay. Admittedly, the question of Qaddafi’s departure has been somehow neglected by the western countries, or even sidelined. It is probably high time to act in this direction, but this task involves western diplomacy rather than NATO and requires more political cohesion in the alliance than that available at present.

Roberto Aliboni is director of the Mediterranean and Middle East Program, International Affairs Institute-IAI, Rome and senior research adviser, European Institute of the Mediterranean-IEMed, Barcelona. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.

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