Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:36 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:36 | SYDNEY

Libya: Setting the record straight

5 May 2011 12:46

Stephan Fruehling is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

The Interpreter has carried several informed and informative contributions on Libya, especially on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. But for the decision to intervene, R2P was only one among many factors. The latest post by Raoul Heinrichs misleads Interpreter readers by sorely lacking recognition of these factors. 

Raoul misrepresents the political dynamics that led to the war. Rather than Europeans inheriting 'a mess of Washington's making', Washington grudgingly signed up at the last minute, and with a clear understanding of European leadership. If there was a driving force, it was President Sarkozy, who recognised the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya seven days before the vote on Resolution 1973. Regime change is not 'mission creep', but has been the goal from the start. 

What Raoul calls Germany's 'wise' decision to stay out was an unreflective one made by its inexperienced foreign minister, who singlehandedly destroyed the decade-long aspiration of closer European foreign and defence cooperation. Sixty-two percent  of the German population supports the intervention, and across the political spectrum in Germany, the abstention in the Security Council is widely seen as one of modern Germany's biggest foreign policy blunders.

Libya is closer to Sicily than East Timor is to Australia. Illegal immigration from North Africa is a serious problem that threatens the political underpinnings of free movement within Europe, the Schengen accords. Millions of Arabs living in France, Italy or Spain mean that European governments cannot remain indifferent to societal convulsions across the Mediterranean. Srebrenica and the geopolitical cost of inaction is still on European minds. And the fact that the Libyan rebellion is part of a far wider wave of revolutions in the Arab world, with far-reaching consequences for the nature of future regimes in a region crucial to Europe's security, cannot be ignored — especially since even the Arab League was calling for an intervention. 

When diagnosing 'rookie errors', at least some discussion of this historical and geopolitical context should be expected.  

Raoul's assertion that Libya has 'no strategic value' to Europe would rightly be received with derision had a European made them with reference to Australia and Indonesia or the South Pacific.

And unlike Australia's neighbours, Libya is ruled by a famously unstable dictator who brutally suppresses his own people, killed hundreds of Europeans in bombings of aircraft and discos, armed terrorist scourges including ETA and IRA, produced or sought chemical and nuclear weapons, fired Scud missiles at Italy, mined shipping channels in the Red Sea, fought for decades to annex parts of Chad (including against significant French forces in 1978, 1983, and 1986) and organised the assassination of major Arab dignitaries including Musa Sadr of Lebanon and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. 

Raoul's assertion that Libya has 'virtually no bearing on events through the wider region' is unsustainable. And given Qadhafi's track record, asking whether it would be 'better if Qadhafi wins' requires looking further than the fate of Benghazi alone.

Raoul states that the operation 'has become a fiasco'. Why? The onslaught of Qadhafi's forces on the rebels has been broken and, without the use of tanks and artillery, his forces are unlikely to prevail. Qadhafi is cut off from supplies and has no support in the Arab world. NATO can maintain the current level of effort for months or even years, enough time to arm and train the rebels or, should that be necessary, deploy ground forces to support them. The Libya operation is still far younger than NATO's 78-day war against Serbia in 1999, and even that was a remarkably short war.

Finally, Raoul flogs the dead horse of the 'Powell doctrine', demanding a clear exit strategy, vital interests being involved, and brief but overwhelming use of force as prerequisites of any intervention. This 'doctrine' is rightly forgotten by most today, because it does not meaningfully relate to most problems of the world. 

It has often been pointed out that countries 'cannot have an exit strategy from their neighbourhood'. One can elegantly derive 'vital' or 'strategic' interests from abstract first principles, but they remain value-laden and open to legitimate political contestation nonetheless. And using force in an overwhelming manner can often be quite disproportionate to the interest involved, have unintended consequences of its own, and involve costs in lives and treasure far greater than viable alternatives — the containment of Iraq before 2003 and France's war with Libya over Chad are apt examples.

Of course, the war in Libya is one of choice. There are good arguments for and against that choice. And adjustments will be made to goals and strategy, as they are in any war. But ultimately, those Western countries who actually have to live with Qadhafi thought it the right choice to support the rebels in getting rid of his regime. Their reasons may seem distant and obscure, but advice from Australia should still be nuanced and informed.

Photo by Flickr user Official US Air Force.