With the international community divided over how exactly to react to the ongoing crisis in Libya, the world risks losing its best hope of toppling Gaddafi, preventing a full-blown humanitarian emergency, and repairing its links with the Arab world. All because of Iraq.
While Britain and France have been demanding a no-fly zone to be put in place over Libya for some time now, the Obama administration is lacking. It’s rhetoric is multilateral and interventionist, but outgoing Secretary of Defence Robert Gates refuses to sanction a no fly zone. The reasons are plain – it fears another Iraqi conflict. But Libya is not Iraq.
The invasion of Iraq was wrong, and should not be repeated, but not because it brought down the Hussein regime – it was wrong because it was poorly planned, costly, showed no awareness of the internal situation, had no exit strategy, and had little international and regional support. On the other hand, involving ourselves in Libya is a must. We can deploy immediately, hopefully never use ground troops, and can exit when the new government is installed – a government with mass popular support, from the population, the exiled king, human rights actors in Libya and the regional powers.
NATO claims that there are three conditions for its involvement.
1) Regional Support
2) Proof its help is needed
3) A Security Council Resolution
The first condition has already been satisfied by recent calls from the Arab League and the Gulf Co-Operation Council to impose a no fly zone. The Arab League Secretary-general, Amr Moussa, has said that the League “can also play a role” in imposing the no-fly zone. Saudi Arabian, Egyptian and other Arab planes in the skies over Libya would help nullify Gaddafi’s rhetoric about the West just being after Libya’s oil. We must make sure that any response is multilateral, this is true, but this can be done.
The second condition – It is probably true that the humanitarian crisis has not yet fully emerged, and Gaddafi’s air force has not always been the main danger to rebel forces. But with strongholds such as Brega and Ajdabiya being taken by Gaddafi loyalists, and Misurata coming under heavy shelling, it will not be long before the rebel forces are driven all the way back to their stronghold in Benghazi. This is the crown in the rebels’ defences – a city of up to a million people, most virulently anti-Gaddafi, and many armed. It will be too large for Gaddafi’s forces to attack head on, and some pundits claim that the air force will be used in great force. It will be the only way for Gaddafi to finally crush the rebellion against him.
The rebels are in a desperate position. The Libyan army has huge momentum and control of major roads and crossroads, whereas the rebellion is lacking supplies and its morale is low. Support from the international community would change everything. A no fly zone grounding Libyan planes would improve morale and make Benghazi near impossible to capture. The rebellion may yet succeed, but only if we support it in its hour of need.
The third condition of having a UN Security Council resolution is important. But it may be too late. Diplomats are currently saying that there may be no vote on the UK-France resolution before Thursday – in a conversation with Reuters, Libya’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, said that the country would be back under control “as soon as possible… [he hopes] in a matter of days”. It might be time to start thinking about circumventing the UN – we did it in the Balkans, when time was of the essence. It is almost run out for the Libyan Opposition.
The desperation of the situation in Libya for the rebels cannot be over-emphasised. If the Arab League and/or NATO are going to install a no fly zone, in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis, it must be done nearly immediately. Perhaps before even a Security Council resolution can be passed. Gareth Evans, the former Foreign Minister of Australia, and proponent of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, claimed that Libya is a perfect case for military intervention. Amr Moussa, has said that intervening in Libya is a “humanitarian action, [consisting of] supporting the Libyan people in their fight for freedom against a regime that is more and more disdainful.” We must move quickly, and if the UNSC does not manage to give authorisation in time to prevent a tragedy, NATO, the Arab League, Britain and France should prepare to take matters into their own hands, if Cameron’s calls for the UN to “show some leadership” go unheeded, and they act too late. In a short, emotional speech on Tuesday, Gaddafi attacked Britain for calling for a no-fly zone – “What right do you have? Do we share borders? Are you our tutor?” No, Britain and Libya do not share a border, but the neighbours of Libya call for the same action to be taken as Britain. We are not your tutors but we must be the protectors of the Libyan people, if their government are a threat to them. It is only right and moral.
This is what the UN and NATO, Germany and the United States, must remember – Libya is not Iraq. Here, we have a chance to prevent a crisis, help overthrow a dictator, liberate a people. We have wide-spread regional support, a request from the Libyans themselves to intervene, and even a minimal deployment will help in some way. Iraq must never be repeated, but this is a different situation. If we allow our fear over repeating Iraq to prevent us implementing a no-fly zone over Libya, and saving the Opposition movement from its almost certain annihilation, we will have committed a mistake greater than invading Iraq ever was. We learnt the wrong lessons.