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August 17, 2011

Libya: mission (being) accomplished - Brendan Simms looks forward to the fall of Gaddafi

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge - envisages what a post-Gadaffi Libya might look like.

When David Cameron took the lead on intervening against the Libyan dictator in March of this year, there were many - including this author - who hailed the revival of the principle of humanitarian intervention. Most, myself once again among them, expected that Moammar Gaddafi would fall quickly once confronted with the might of NATO airpower. Others, especially Mr Cameron himself, wisely made no predictions beyond their own determination to see the job through to the end. His caution has proved justified. Over the past weeks, nearly six months into the operation, critical voices have multiplied, the general sense of malaise accentuated by the stalemate in Afghanistan, "Can NATO actually win any of its wars", the Guardian's Richard Norton-Taylor has asked, brutally.

The frustration is understandable. In the case of Kosovo, the air campaign launched in March 1999 might have taken much longer to stop Milosevic's programme of ethnic cleansing than most had hoped, but he evacuated the province by the end of June, hardly three months after the bombs fell. The Libyan operation has not been on the same scale, especially as far as the Americans are concerned, but it has been substantial all the same. They have flown thousands of sorties, usually destroying several tanks, artillery pieces or other bits of Gaddafi's arsenal a day; independent journalists have reported extensive battle damage, so this is not just wishful thinking. One should bear in mind also that the Libyan army is a much less formidable proposition than the old JNA, which was the rump of what had once been the fourth largest fighting force in Europe.

Despite this, the Libyan rebels have been unable to make much progress, and until very recently remained stalled at their frontlines at Brega pretty much where they had been since March of this year. This has emboldened the Libyan dictator to take the offensive rhetorically. His regime has repeatedly warned that it will unleash waves of refugees, many of whom are already making their way to Italy, especially the island of Pantelleria. Gaddafi has also reopened the question of al-Andalus, the Moorish kingdom of southern Spain over-run by the reconquista. His son, Saif al Islam - whose time at the LSE has clearly given him a sense of Western anxieties - has threatened to enter a tactical alliance with the Islamist opposition in order to marginalize the more democratic elements within the Transitional National Council (TNC). To cap it all, last month some rogue Islamist elements murdered General Abdulfattah Younes, a senior rebel commander, giving at least superficial credence to Saif's claims.

All the same, the criticism is unjustified. This is not so much because of the recent battlefield successes of the rebels in the west; NATO officials now even speak of the danger of "catastrophic success", that is a rebel victory followed by chaos. These may lead to a rapid collapse of the regime, but equally they may well peter out again. Instead, we need to recall the original purpose of the intervention. Removing Gadaffi, and thus improving the chances of a Libyan transition to democracy, maintaining the momentum of the Arab Spring in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, as well as sending a strong signal to Syria, were all important (if unstated) aims.

The main - and stated - aim of the intervention, however, was to prevent the dictator from carrying out his professed intent of clearing out the "rats" in Benghazi "street by street". His regime had a proven record of massacring real or suspected opponents in the 1980s and 1990s, so the dangers of inaction were clear.

In that crucial respect, the intervention succeeded and every day that Gaddafi is unable to use his full force against his own people, it goes on succeeding. The Libyan operation, in other words, is doing what we all now feel should have been done from the start in Bosnia and Rwanda. For this reason alone, Mr Cameron deserves praise. Moreover, he and Mr Sarkozy have managed to bring and keep together a very diverse coalition of powers in support of the intervention, and - for those who care about these things - to secure the necessary international legitimacy through the United Nations.

Besides, confronting Gaddafi probably helped to smooth the (still-fraught) transitions in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, as well as limiting Assad's options in Syria. It is an interesting counter-factual as to what would have happened had Gaddafi crushed the rising in a welter of bloodshed: at the very least, this would have emboldened the regime in Damascus to inflict another Hama-style massacre, rather than resort to the ineffective brutal half-measures we have seen over the past five months.

Of course, the reverse is also true. If Gaddafi eventually prevails, all Arab repressive regimes will take heart. Moreover, the failure would damage NATO and - fairly or unfairly - undermine the concept of humanitarian intervention.

So what is to be done? If we just stick to preventing a massacre we risk being successful in the same way that smokers give up the weed: they find it so easy that they keep on doing it. At some point prevention will have to give way to a long term solution. Britain and France should step up military support for the rebels, especially logistical assistance to the rebels west and south of Tripoli, who are within striking distance of the capital.

Even more important in the medium- to long-term, though, is for the West to insist on credible moves towards democracy from the TNC. Their argument that early elections would only split the country between east and west were plausible, but should not be an excuse for delaying them indefinitely. In an ideal world, there would have been a rapid defeat of Gadaffi followed by country-wide polls, but if the TNC does not succeed in dislodging him soon, then we should make further military support contingent on a popular mandate for the rebels, challenging the regime to follow suit. Our only exit strategy, in short, is to train the Libyans to defend themselves and to help them on the path to representative government.

Give a man a fish, the old saying goes, and you feed him for a day, but teach him to fish and you feed him for life. Save him from being massacred, and you protect him for the moment, but teach him to govern and defend himself, and you protect him for life.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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