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Libya: Three rookie errors

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3 May 2011 11:28

In March, when China and Russia refused to veto UN Security Council resolution 1973 (authorising the use of force against Libya), alarm bells should have been ringing in Washington. The arch-realists in Beijing and Moscow were no converts to the lofty liberalism that suddenly overtook US foreign policy, nor keen to embrace a more elastic conception of sovereignty.

They were just being pragmatic. The notion that the US and its allies were not content with Afghanistan and Iraq, and were itching for another distraction, another open-ended military adventure in a country of no strategic value was, as Walter Russell Mead notes, just too 'deliciously attractive' to resist.

Six weeks later, true to Russian and Chinese expectations, the whole adventure has become a fiasco. The civil-war is stalemated. The rebel movement remains a largely unknown quantity, divided at the top and, despite limited air-cover and material support, only just able to hold out against the Libyan army, much less advance on Tripoli to oust Qadhafi.

The mission has also exposed deep fissures within NATO. With Germany having wisely stayed out and the US eager to divest itself of leadership, accusations of fecklessness and buck-passing are now giving way in France and Britain to the disturbing realisation that they've inherited a mess of Washington's making, whose resolution will demand a level of commitment disproportionate to anything at stake.

This isn't to say things are completely hopeless. Militarily, a not-disastrous outcome may still be salvageable, but it will require the West to make a hard choice from a spectrum of unpalatable options: NATO will either have to do a lot more; do more of the same, but for a great deal longer; or else lower the bar and settle for less.

Then, of course, there's the post-Qadhafi situation, which if it ever arises could get very messy, indeed. In the meantime, the intervention is serving one useful purpose, providing future policy-makers with yet another illustrated guide in 'how-not-to-make-strategy'. So, where did it go wrong?

1. No vital interest
For starters, no one but its immediate neighbours has vital strategic interests in Libya — not Britain, France or the US. This matters, because military force remains a particularly blunt instrument of statecraft, one which despite technological improvements, usually needs to be employed more intensively than is anticipated.

Even when it is done properly, the commencement of war entails immense suffering and financial cost and in many cases gives rise to unintended consequences with the potential to bedevil policy-makers as much if not more than the original cause of war. For these reasons, military force is best reserved for use in genuinely critical situations — that is, against direct challenges to national security or vital interests — even if that means accepting sharper limits on our capacity to shape far-away events.

Libya doesn't qualify. While it has been a substantial oil producer for some time, it is hardly indispensable. It has a small population and economy; a decrepit military, devoid of destructive weaponry; and, with sea and land borders, a remote geographic location that renders it perpetually vulnerable and for the most part able to be kept in line.

As a consequence, Libya has since World War II been little more than a strategic sideshow in the Middle East, with limited diplomatic weight and virtually no bearing on events throughout the wider region.

2. Unlimited ends
With no vital interest at stake, military intervention in Libya was justified by humanitarian concerns. What mattered was to prevent a massacre that, in President Obama's words, 'would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world'. That seemed to many like an intuitively appreciable cause for war. In fact, it was deceptively problematic.

For one thing, as my colleague Crispin Rovere has noted, events in Libya did not portend a systematic slaughter reminiscent of Rwanda or Bosnia, as was widely presumed, but rather a civil war, replete with the usual range of human rights abuses. For another, however bad these might have been, they paled into insignificance compared with the nature and scale of atrocities being perpetrated elsewhere — for example in Sudan or the Congo — which have barely elicited any meaningful response from the West, much less military intervention.

Strategically, however, the biggest problem with the Libyan end-game is that, having been poorly defined to begin with, it became too expansive and amorphous to provide any clear guide to action. Statesmen often prefer not to articulate clear objectives, so as to preserve their ability to shift the goal posts as required. But this also obscures the means necessary to succeed and makes it harder to discern whether the intervention is practical and worth the endeavour.

Did protecting civilians mean simply preventing Benghazi from being overrun? Did it mean helping the rebel movement to victory? Or was it about ousting Qadhafi, facilitating a democratic transition, and stoking the democratic impulses convulsing the Middle East?

With the defence of humanity at stake, moreover, the objective did not avail itself of any obvious limit, becoming gradually more absolute as the weeks went by. Thus, what began as an attempt to protect Libyan civilians has, in spite of Obama's prevarication, now graduated to the goal of wholesale regime change.

3. Inadequate means
Finally, in pursuit of maximalist aims, the West has made the mistake of committing only minimal means, insufficient to achieve its objectives. As Jim Molan points out, the much vaunted 'no-fly-zone' didn't work. Nor did the 'no-drive-zone', which only forced the Libyan army off the roads and into populated urban areas.

With the stalemate now entrenched and mission creep setting in, attention has focused on arming and training the rebels, as well as expanding the target set to include palaces, command centres and headquarters — all of which, if it is to break the stalemate or tip Qadhafi from power, will take considerably longer.

The failure to align military means with ends is hardly unique to Libya. The same problem beset American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is symptomatic of two deeper dilemmas. First, in situations where no vital interests are at stake but where Western leaders nevertheless feel compelled to act, there's a temptation to do military intervention on the cheap.

This saves money and minimises the risk to life, thereby preserving support among sceptical or war weary publics — even as it means often failing to attain the military objective at hand.

Second, since the end of the Cold War, asymmetries in the world's distribution of capabilities has consistently led to the overestimation of US military power and, by corollary, to the underestimation of the tasks to which it's assigned.

In prosecuting the first Gulf War, Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, promulgated a doctrine that sought to internalise the most critical lessons of the failure in Vietnam. Henceforth, he argued, the US should go to war only in defence of vital interests, and then only using overwhelming force to achieve limited goals.

The intervention in Libya fails on every count.

Photo by Flickr user Abraxas3d.

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