Stalemate Reflects a Lack of Foresight

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Stalemate Reflects a Lack of Foresight

Adding to the horribly expensive failures of Iraq and Afghanistan, we now have a quagmire in Libya. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it and if we needed yet one more lesson on the folly of trying to bomb our way to democracy, the situation in Libya is a powerful example.

Libya is considered one of the most tribal nations in the Arab world and Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi has used his country’s vast oil wealth to co-opt tribal loyalties with cash, privileges and jobs. Of the 140 tribes and influential large families in the country, about 30 of them have real political power, and as the civil war progresses into its fifth month, cracks in tribal affiliations are starting to appear. The Warfalla tribe, with more than a million members, leads the opposition allied with the Magariha tribe and the Islamic Fighting Group, but ultimately, if Col Gaddafi is overthrown, these tribes could fight each other, splitting Libya into different regions. This sounds more like chaos than freedom.

Even the most cursory study of Libyan politics makes this clear. To give it its official title, the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya has been since 1957 an experiment in statelessness, governed by the populace through local councils, but remaining in effect an authoritarian state. Oil revenues have negated the need for democracy-building through taxation and representation and other democratic institutions like a free press. Like other politically fragile oil-producing states in the Middle East and Africa, Libya has been surprised by the demands of a rapidly growing and educated population and the unrest sweeping through much of the Arab world.

Libya’s population in 2003 was 86 per cent urban and more than half were under the age of 25. Although no reliable figures are available, unemployment is said to be acute and the mismatch of the educational system with market demand has led to a large population of skilled expatriate workers and immigrants. Unskilled labour is also needed for the workforce and the campaign to encourage qualified Libyan civil servants and entrepreneurs has not had the desired results so far.

Before the unrest started, the country had been enjoying an economic boom with growth of 10.6 per cent in 2010, but the oil wealth is not trickling down and it is estimated that about one-third of Libyans live in poverty. The new internet generation of the Arab Spring is demanding its share of the prosperity that Col Gaddafi’s erratic rule has failed to provide.

The world is watching the rebels in Libya, the Transitional National Council, to see if they can hold as an effective government, without disintegrating into discord and tribal rivalry. Of course their effectiveness as a fighting force in the ground war is continually under stress as supplies and ammunition are held up through lack of funds. The British government announced in July that it is unfreezing £91 million in Libyan assets for the rebels and is seeking a way to divert oil revenues into a UN-administered escrow account. The personal finances of the dictator and his household are subject to international sanctions and asset-freezes, but the regime continues to have access to hundreds of millions of dollars’ of state oil revenues that currently fund the regime’s continuing violence against opposition groups and civilian protesters.

In the meantime, the Nato operation continues with Britain playing a major role in the “half-war” with no end in sight. The original motivation for intervention was on humanitarian grounds, when a makeshift rebel army of “plucky little democrats” along with their civilian supporters in Benghazi, looked as if they were going to be outgunned and outnumbered by Col Gaddafi’s troops. The United Nations Security Council voted to authorise intervention to prevent a bloody defeat of the rebels and on 19 March, American and European forces began operations. Five months later, the stalemate reflects the lack of foresight and caution involved in the original decision-making and the folly of rushing into a civil war with humanitarian impulses but no strategic sense, no institutional memory it seems and no sense of history.

“The iron law of plunging into someone else’s civil war is to choose the side most likely to win and make sure it does.” In the UK, the coalition government’s recent involvement in Libya is seen increasingly as rash politics running against common sense, reflecting a decade of failed western policy towards the Arab world. The normal checks and balances provided by a senior civil service and experienced diplomats seem to be absent, and a recent flurry of defence cuts are bringing into question the very ability of British forces to carry out their missions in Libya and Afghanistan. British MPs have accused the Prime Minister of sacrificing national security to make savings after the Ministry of Defence discovered a £43 billion “funding black hole”.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox, however, recently assured a sceptical public that he is pushing through radical reform “to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated”.

Certainly, the British government is right to start downplaying expectations of a decisive breakthrough. “Mission creep” has blurred the line between humanitarian intervention and regime change, and instead of protecting civilians, night raids by Nato planes have struck thousands of targets throughout Libya, killing more than 800 civilians as collateral damage. Amid growing international and domestic unease, Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted on 1 August that five months of military action against Libya has been a success even though Col Gaddafi remains in power.

According to the Guardian, the cost of imposing a no-fly zone and bombing targets in Libya is so far officially estimated at £260m. The figures are contained in a report by the Commons Defence Committee which makes it clear the sums are no more than estimates. The US is paying 75 per cent of Nato’s operating costs, causing some concern within the US House Armed Services Committee, as the total is well over $1 billion. with no end in sight. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, admitted on 27 July that “we are generally in a stalemate”.

With the rebels appearing to be disorganised and unable to advance without Nato airstrikes, Col Gaddafi’s forces have moved their tanks and heavy artillery into city areas where Nato won’t strike because of the risk of civilian casualties. At the same time, Britain last week officially recognised the Libyan rebels’ National Transitional Council as the country’s legitimate government and invited its representatives to move into the Libyan Embassy in London.

Meanwhile, as debate continues about the management of the war, the question of the legality of the war continues in somewhat muted terms, particularly in the US. Overshadowed until recently by the issues of the deficit and the debt ceiling, Congress is now on summer vacation and paying attention to little else but re-election plans. The fact that President Barack Obama decided to wage war on Libya without seeking Congressional approval attracted some attention at the time, but it seems the deadline of 20 May has been overlooked. That was the end of the 60-day limit under the War Powers Act wherein the President’s actions may have been legal.

Now the deadline has passed, there should be Congressional and media scrutiny of the US role in Libya, which the president continues to insist is not “warfare” as there are no US troops on the ground. The US pulled out its fighter jets in April following Mr Obama’s pledge to hand over most military missions to Nato allies, keeping attack aircraft on standby while command and control aircraft and navy ships remain in action.

Short of a foreign occupation force however, military advisers in both the UK and the US are playing with semantics as they ask for more expansive measures along with the re-definition of the “no-fly zone” allowing for airstrikes on combatants and infrastructure as well as CIA ground operations.

“The operation will be days and not weeks,” Mr Obama said in a speech on 22 March at the start of the military mission. Since 31 March, Nato has carried out more than 17,500 air sorties, and employed 17 ships to enforce an arms embargo, stopping more than 2,000 ships and boarding about 200. Yet still Col Gaddafi seems to have tanks and guns enough to continue killing his own people.

The lack of interest in intervention in Darfur and now Syria calls into question the whole idea of humanitarian intervention. Major powers whose military resources could be used to launch such missions are noticeably reluctant to do so unless national interests are involved. Strategic interests prevail and the role that Libya’s oil plays in the global economy is the glaringly obvious strategic interest. Some 85 per cent of Libya’s crude exports go to Europe, helping to explain the commitment of France and Italy to the Nato operation and whereas Libya is only the 12th largest oil producer in the world, and cannot significantly disrupt world supplies, the concern is that unrest could spread to Saudi Arabia.

Those who look to the West for support in their struggles for democracy are wise to be wary. Western powers have betrayed so many hopeful movements in the past and now, can no longer afford to engage in imperialistic nation-building. Populist politicians love to grandstand on the subject of freedom, but grandstanding has become prohibitively expensive. It may be too much to hope that strategic decision-makers and statesmen in the corridors of power will spend their summer reading up on history, and finally learn the lesson that democracy cannot be imposed from without.

As the UK’s former defence adviser to the prime minister, Lord Dannatt, recently said, it is time that the UK and the US ended their foreign adventures and stopped going into conflicts “with limited military capability, limited enthusiasm, limited practical support from other countries, a limited mandate and limited financial resources”.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a fellow and member of the board of directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and world fellow at Yale.

This article was originally published by The Scotsman.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU. 

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