April 6, 2011 | Standpoint

Too Little, Too Late

A no-fly zone over Libya may still turn the tide, lead to the ousting of Colonel Gaddafi and facilitate an orderly transition to democracy led by the rebel forces based in Benghazi. At a minimum, military action may mitigate civilian suffering in Libya's rebellious east.

But with troops loyal to Gaddafi making their way into the rebel stronghold of Benghazi hours before a 19-nation summit in Paris launched Western intervention, the no-fly zone — plus mandate over Libya's skies approved by the United Nations a few days earlier under UN Security Council Resolution 1973 may be a case of too little too late.

President Barack Obama's earlier statement that Gaddafi must go was surely correct. But is this what military intervention against Libya aims to achieve? And can anything, short of regime change, protect ordinary Libyans from their dictator's wrath?

The US Administration has been evasive on this point. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has recognised the rebels as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people but his foreign minister, Alain Juppé, announced — a day after military operations commenced — that the goal of the operation was not to oust Gaddafi. If this is not about toppling Gaddafi, what will coalition forces do, once confronted with stalemate, vicious urban fighting, a possible refugee crisis, Western casualties or hostages, and mounting hostility across the Arab world?

The case for military intervention in Libya rests on the principle of a “responsibility to protect” (R2P), which emerged from the international community's failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995. R2P justified Nato's bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia in 1999. It also informed no-fly zones in Iraqi Kurdistan and over southern Iraq between 1991 and 2003. Failure to intervene in Rwanda and Bosnia until very late illustrated the moral and human costs of the alternative and cemented Western nations' resolve to intervene in future to stem the tide of humanitarian disasters. But the record of R2P is not one of unmitigated success.

Iraq's no-fly zone illustrated the limits of humanitarian intervention. Not prepared to put boots on the ground for fear of casualties, lack of an international mandate and support from domestic audiences, governments have usually undertaken these campaigns without the specific aim of removing the ultimate cause of evil they purport to prevent.

It is too early to assume that Libya will become a Mediterranean version of the Iraq no-fly zone. But it is not too early to notice similarities — namely, that in the rush to protect civilians, decision-makers have repeated a number of mistakes that in the past ended up tainting humanitarian interventions. By prioritising international consensus, Arab backing and UN endorsement over an effective, well-planned strategy, those governments now engaged in enforcing the no-fly zone failed to recognise that:

  •     The amount of military force they set out to use may not achieve their goals;
  •     The mission may last longer than hoped;
  •     Mounting costs and casualties will have repercussions far outweighing the benefits;
  •     Only a larger commitment of forces on the ground will end up producing a decisive resolution to the conflict.

Western powers involved in this latest round of military action have spent considerable time and diplomatic resources seeking to build the kind of international support needed to pass the legal tools that would offer legitimacy to their intervention. They thus succeeded in getting a UN Resolution and even the Arab League's temporary backing for action. But these efforts have come at the expense of rallying sceptical allies around a set of policy options that could maximise success while minimising risk. There is no guarantee that the initial international support once prized so much more than allied backing will remain.

Within a few hours of the first wave of attacks, the Arab League had already condemned coalition attacks for hurting civilians. This is the same Arab League that called for a no-fly zone but has put in no military assets or money to make it happen.

France and Great Britain have obtained a set of military guidelines that might have achieved the stated goals of protecting civilians and the underlying goal of toppling Gaddafi had they been passed a month earlier than they were. Being a month late, they rushed to implement the policy in haste — and with no guarantee of success.

The Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu famously quipped: “What is essential in war is victory, not prolonged operations.” With Libya, Anglo-French diplomacy has achieved the beginning of prolonged operations. Victory is another matter.