There is increasing discussion and hand-wringing about the pros and cons of direct intervention in the carnage that is now Libya. What seems certain is that without a circuit- breaker, forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi will continue to wreak havoc on the Libyan people.
What is at stake here is the much debated ‘Responsibility To Protect’ (R2P), in which the international community agreed in 2005 that it needs to act to stop such bloodbaths before, rather than respond after, they happen.
However, as many analysts correctly point out that, a military intervention in Libya could well cohere the Libyan people not against Gaddafi but against the external forces. The invasion of Iraq was not based on the R2P principle, but it did show the folly of foreign occupation of a country that the people did not want occupied. Afghanistan is doing likewise.
Moreover, while there is legitimate concern over the fate of the Libyan people, there are few politicians elsewhere who are willing to risk the political backlash of sending their country’s sons to die in another country which had gone from being a pariah to an accepted member of the international community. The irony and the moral compromise would be too strong.
In any case, getting the UN Security Council to agree to such intervention seems highly unlikely, given the veto powers of the permanent members and in particular Russia and China. R2P is supposed to be cloaked in the protection of international law, which even itself in dispute. But Security Council agreement on it is an agreed criterion.
Yet how can the world and its leaders sit by, mouthing seemingly high-minded yet empty platitudes without doing anything? Talk, as they say, is cheap.
In 1986, then President Reagan ordered the bombing of Tripoli in an attempt to remove Gaddafi. His palace was destroyed and his daughter was killed, but ‘the mad dog of the Middle East’ escaped unharmed as he was staying in one of his tents in the palace back yard.
The intention was clear enough, however. The US did not want to attack the Libyan people and did not want to land soldiers on Libyan soil. But it did want to get rid of Gaddafi. Fast forward 25 years and we see a similar situation emerging.
In 1999, in response to the massacres of civilians in Kosovo by Serb soldiers, NATO embarked on a unilateral bombing campaign against Belgrade. The Security Council was unimpressed but, in practical terms, powerless to stop it. In the end, Belgrade acceded to NATO’s demands that it withdraw from Kosovo, paving the way for UN administration and eventually Kosovo’s independence.
A carefully targeted missile is probably the cheapest and most effective method of removing Gaddafi. But, failing that, a re-run of something like the Kosovo campaign could work. Such an intervention would need to be very carefully targeted and could, of course, run the risk of hitting the wrong targets. This is also a problem with R2P ground interventions.
The advantage, however, would be that the political costs to Western leaders would be minimal and hence they would be more prepared to do it. The question is, now, if they will.
Perhaps by the time the creaky wheels of strategic decision making grind over the Libyan disaster will have resolved itself. Either the Libyan people will be facing a new political day, or Gaddafi will engage in a reign of terror. If the former, external intervention will become redundant.
If, however, Gaddafi’s thugs manage to cow the Libyan people, the question will less likely be whether the West will seek to remove this crazed dictator but when and how. Next time, the tent in the back yard will be in the cross hairs.