In March I noticed some Pakistani members of an Orkut online discussion forum discussing the likelihood of a Western invasion of Libya. No, no, I said: the public in countries like US and UK are too war-weary and the exchequers are too empty for their governments to blunder into another war. Days later a coalition of European and American forces were striking military targets in Libya.
This seemed an astonishing move for deeply indebted nations, some already bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are grave risks facing the coalition's involvement in Libya.
Almost immediately after the first strikes Gaddafi started to call the attacks a "colonial crusade" against Libya. Russia's Putin said the same, and I read Muslims on Orkut asking why Americans kept voting for "warmonger" presidents. The intervention lends weight to Islamist and anti-Western narratives that portray the US and its allies as aggressive imperialists.
Remember that the coalition includes Italy, Libya's former colonial power. Weeks ago in Ireland I read graffiti by radical Irish nationalists promising to murder Queen Elizabeth when she visits later this year. Despite decades of peaceful cooperation and generally good relations between Ireland and Britain, some radical Irish nationalists still loathe the former colonial power: I wonder how nationalist Libyans will feel to see the Italian former enemy bombing their soil.
Paul Pillar of The National Interest shares this concern:
Any use of Western and especially U.S. military force in a Muslim country runs the risk of energizing Islamist terrorism. Such use bolsters the extremist narrative of a Judeo-Christian West that is out to kill Muslims, dominate their lands, and plunder their resources.In that sense I would have been much more comfortable to see leadership of any intervention come from other Arab or African countries, backed if necessary by NATO. This NATO-dominated intervention plays readily into the hands of Islamist propagandists.
The selective nature of the intervention could backfire too, as the old Libyan enemy is confronted with military action while violent repression in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is not. Claims of hypocrisy and double standards could further undermine respect for the coalition and stir up another wave of anti-Western terrorists.
If Gaddafi Wins
Some discussion of the intervention has been based only on moral concern with allowing Gaddafi to massacre Libyan civilians. That international intervention will be successful in preventing this seems to go without question, yet there is no obvious reason to believe that Gaddafi is going to lose.
Already Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy have announced the Gaddafi must be removed from power in Libya: expanding the original goals of the intervention into a far more ambitious regime change. All Gaddafi needs now to claim victory is survive, and if he does then the allies face a dreadful set of options:
1) Accept the outcome and seek peace with Gaddafi. He may not agree to this, though. Having shown that they are untrustworthy, Gaddafi has every motivation to recommence a nuclear weapons programme to prevent a future NATO intervention. He could also restore his historical support for international terrorism. He would have little to lose, knowing that the coalition will turn on him at the first opportunity.
This situation would also humiliate NATO/the coalition and might encourage other world powers to challenge them.
2) Escalate, set troops onto Libyan soil, wage a long-term war. This could become extremely bloody and costly, another Iraq War in North Africa. Remember that the Iraq War was predicted to cost between $50 billion and $60 billion, with higher estimates of $200 billion considered "the upper end of a hypothetical" by a White House director. Last year a report for the US Congress estimated the total military costs for the US in Iraq at $751 billion. George W Bush claimed victory in Iraq just 41 days after the invasion began, yet by far the bloodiest year for coalition troops was 2007, four years later. Removing Saddam was relatively easy while building a new government was extremely hard: peace in Iraq killed many times more troops than war.
A large-scale invasion could also further damage the reputation of the US and its allies, especially among Muslims. The arrival of old colonial enemies like Italy and France into North Africa could provoke deeply negative responses.
If Gaddafi loses
Even the capitulation of Gaddafi would bring no certainty of true victory, when so little is known of the Libyan rebels. If the rebels turn out to be no more interested in peace and cooperation than Gaddafi, the coalition are left with another set of nightmarish problems. If they support a new tyrannical government they will take a propaganda hit, suggesting hypocrisy in their rhetoric about democracy and liberalism, and killings of Libyan civilians could continue. Many revolutions in the past have replaced old autocrats with new autocrats.
Or the rebels might disintegrate along internal divisions and a new civil war would replace the old. The potential role of Islamists in Libya's new regime is also troubling. A report by US West Point Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center found that Libya contributed by far the most Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq per capita, while Libya's rebel leader has already admitted that some of these Al Qaeda fighters are now with him fighting Gaddafi.
Attempts to implant foreign democratic structures in Iraq and Afghanistan have been costly, bloody, and resented. Similar efforts on Libya may turn out no better.
A message to tyrants
In the 1980s and 1990s Gaddafi sponsored international terrorist groups, including the Provisional IRA. He also had a programme to build chemical and nuclear weapons, a programme he abandoned along with his support for terrorism in the 2000s. Several Western countries reestablished diplomatic relations with Libya and a new era of cooperation began.
But Gaddafi's new friends swiftly turned on him this year, despite the ending of his nuclear and terrorist activities. North Korea has nuclear weapons to deter foreign invasions but since Libya had dismantled its own the coalition felt confident enough to bomb.
The message to other autocrats is to speed their nuclear weapons programmes. Selig S. Harrison from The National Interest:
As he faces the US-NATO onslaught in the weeks ahead, will Muammar Qaddafi conclude that he made a disastrous mistake when he gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003 in return for Bush administration promises of aid and improved relations?Governments who fear American intervention, like the Iranians, will see the need to build nuclear weapons, this move could promote rapid proliferation in autocracies around the world.
An official from North Korea says he clearly did, and “it is now being fully exposed before the world that Libya’s ‘nuclear dismantlement,’ much touted by the U.S. in the past, turned out to be a mode of aggression, a way of coaxing the victim with sweet words to disarm itself and then to swallow it up by force.”
What if nobody wins?
With half-hearted military support from the coalition, the rebels have not yet been defeated. Neither has Gaddafi stepped down. The intervention may only have served to prolong the conflict, increasing the ultimate body count and extending the global economic shock of the reduced oil output caused by the war.
The risks of this intervention are very great, the likelihood of success - the swift replacement of Gaddafi with a friendly democratic government - is low. For countries already stuck in other military and economic quagmires the wisdom of this move is questionable. And simply by becoming involved the coalition will be blamed if things go badly.
I have described before my strong dislike of war and potential blind spot in discussions about it: I want war to be ineffective at solving problems. This may colour my interpretation of events in Libya to date. But I refer in the end to the wisdom of Niccolò Machiavelli:
Wars begin at the will of anyone, but they do not end at anyone's will.