Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 10:20 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 10:20 | SYDNEY

The Libya intervention is a bad idea, especially if it works


Anthony Bubalo

22 March 2011 14:17

It seems a little pointless to argue the pros and cons of Western military intervention in Libya three days after it has begun. So instead, here are three observations on what might happen next:

1. Giving birth without the labour

Proponents of the military intervention in Libya seem to be aiming for that rarely achieved condition known as half-pregnancy. They hope that a small and clinical dose of air power will get them a Libyan democratic baby without the labour pains of a prolonged and costly ground war. I really hope it works out that way. 

The 'no-fly zone' that has already become a close air support mission might get lucky and kill Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. Or it may shift the military balance decisively in the favour of opposition insurgents. Or it may change the calculus of those in the regime around Qadhafi, causing them to abandon their long time leader, as occurred in Tunisia and Egypt. 

But if none of the above happens, the interveners will be stuck with a military intervention whose self-imposed limits will melt quicker than a popsicle in the Libyan desert. Then what will they do' 

Already the White House and Downing St are drawing back from the transparent nonsense that this is not about regime change. That is great, but it means that, so long as Qadhafi survives, coalition aircraft will have to strive ever more desperately to deliver the coup de grace. If this does not work (or kills too many civilians in the process), pressure will build for boots on the ground.

2. Nothing succeeds like (cheap) success

If Western military intervention in Libya succeeds, let's hope no one notices. The Middle East is rich with no-fly zone possibilities. In Yemen, a powerful and brutal general has just gone over to the opposition. This hopefully signals the fracturing of the regime (as occurred in Tunisia and in Egypt), leading to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's relatively peaceful departure. But what if it leads to a civil war instead' Saleh does not need to be as brutal as Qadhafi to create pressure for another 'humanitarian' intervention, especially if the one in Libya succeeds relatively quickly and easily. 

But in Yemen, the West's concern about the presence of al Qaeda will make the US and its allies much more reluctant to repeat the Libyan exercise.

Some might argue that the worst that will happen is that the West is yet again accused of double standards. But there is also a danger of hubris and over-reach. What if we are talking not about countries like Yemen and Bahrain, where the West has interests to protect, but about unrest in countries where the West may actually be tempted by the possibility of regime change, like Syria (where they started shooting protesters over the weekend) or Iran (where they are always shooting protesters)' 

Hey, I don't like these regimes either, but I learnt my lesson with Iraq.

3. Arab springs eternal 

If the Western intervention in Libya fails, it will be bad for Libyans and bad for Western credibility, but it will not be, as some have suggested, bad for the Arab spring.

The uprisings reflect deep currents of change in the region that came to the surface dramatically in places like Tunisia and Egypt, but that have been swirling around beneath the region's autocratic regimes for a decade or more. Even if there are opposition defeats in Libya, Bahrain or elsewhere, these currents are not going to disappear any time soon. They won't always lead immediately or inevitably to regime change, but will crop up in years to come in ways we cannot anticipate now. 

The region's al-Jazeera-led media revolution in the mid-90s, the social media revolution of the mid-noughties, the myriad socio-economic crises afflicting virtually all states in the region (if to different degrees) and the crisis of authority caused by sclerotic bureaucracies and, in many cases, geriatric leaders — all these factors make early pronouncements about the end of the Arab spring premature. 

Indeed, the most important event in the region in recent days was not the Western decision to intervene militarily in Libya, but the Egyptian constitutional referendum that saw an unprecedented turnout. So even as the region's autocrats look to Qadhafi's repressive example for ideas about how to respond to their domestic opponents, the region's democrats will take even more inspiration from what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere, illustrating the new horizons of Arab politics.

Photo by Flickr user Defence Images.