Libya: the UN motion is not just a cynical gesture

I’m getting a bit fed up with commentators who launch into diatribes based on generalities, without bothering to examine the facts of the case in point.  Libya is the latest example.  I have read two articles critical of the UN motion authorising military action; Max Hastings in the FT, and Sean Collins in Spiked.  The situation in Libya is interesting because it is unique; these articles are almost worthless because they never get beyond generalities.  In fact exceptional circumstances make the UN-approved action a viable way forward; and no doubt that is why it was proposed.

Mr Collins’s article is the weaker – but it is a pretty typical offering for a Spiked writer.  (See my post on Spiked).  Its title is Libya: how the West just made things worse.  He says:

Far from rescuing the Libyan uprising, the resolution is a setback for the cause of democracy and self-determination.

He does not do a good job of explaining why though.  We get the usual complaints that it will undermine the rebels’ legitimacy; we also get a rather old-fashioned (and unsupported) reference to the sacred principle of national sovereignty.  He does not even attempt to explain how this is worse for the rebels than being overrun by Gaddafi’s forces, or at least how this would be better for self-determination and democracy.  This comes over as just another rant from a writer who would condemn any action taken by a Western leader, whatever it was.

Mr Hastings’s article is much more disappointing, because he is a military historian who should be able to deploy some insight and expertise, if he could be bothered.  His article is entitled US and its allies are too late to help Libya.  His contention is that only intervention by ground forces will save the Libyan rebels:

…the situation today is where it always was: once Muammer Gaddafi showed himself determined to fight, only direct ground intervention by the US and its allies would have enabled the ill-armed rebels to prevail.

This would ordinarily be a correct assessment; but Libya is different.  Libya consists of a series of settlements separated by expanses of desert.  Crossing this desert is the key to success, and that gives air power a much greater effectiveness than normal.  Ground forces must be motorised – but motor vehicles are vulnerable with so little cover.  Or you use airpower – which, of course can be neutralised by opposing airpower.  Added to which are the issues of logistics; advancing forces find it increasingly difficult to keep in fuel and ammunition the further they advance – and rely on motor or air transport for these too.  This is not Kosovo or Bosnia.  Gaddafi does not have huge forces at his disposal, so it is quite realistic for this intervention to halt them – although not to roll them back.

So it looks quite feasible for the West to sustain the rebel territory from Benghazi eastwards, especially given the moral boost that intervention gives them.  This still leaves Gaddafi in control of most of the country.  How is he to be defeated?  He will be defeated once his forces start to lose hope.  This is possible because he depends on two groups in particular: foreign mercenaries and tribal allies.  Both of these need to be on the winning side; a third group, Gaddafi loyalists who face the prospect of being lynched if Gaddafi loses, are more reliable but not enough.  Gaddafi’s problem is that the economy has collapsed: he needs those migrant workers and the oil trade.  More rigorous enforcement of sanctions is part of the UN resolution.

Which leads me to another exceptional circumstance: Gaddafi is diplomatically isolated.  The Arab League has come out against him, and he has no allies (apart from Syria perhaps and, who knows?, Iran).  This is just reward for his antics and excessive ego; he was never a reliable ally.  This puts him in the same situation as Saddam Hussein after his attack on Kuwait.  This isolation gives the West a much greater degree of legitimacy, as well as making it much more difficult for him to rebuild a sustainable state from the territory he does hold.

So the scenario for victory is this.  Gaddafi’s advances are halted and the resolve of the rebels sustained by the no-fly zone, and air strikes from Western powers and Arab states (with the US not necessarily playing a huge role).  Gaddafi’s support then gradually melts away as his tribal allies are tempted to change sides in order to bring the conflict to an end, and mercenaries become unwilling to expose themselves to air attack and the possibility of the regime collapsing.  This is not the only possible outcome – but it is viable.  Unlike trying to shift the Serbs from Kosovo with air power alone.

What are the morals for dictators wishing to avoid overthrow?  First keep the armed forces under your control (unlike Tunisia and Egypt).  Second make sure you stay friends with enough of your neighbours (unlike Gaddafi and Saddam).  All the worse for the incipient rebellions in Bahrain and Yemen.  Also it helps if your country isn’t mostly desert.  Robert Mugabe looks pretty safe.

4 thoughts on “Libya: the UN motion is not just a cynical gesture”

  1. There is a further problem for the Gaddafi forces. Extended deployments are a disadvantage in desert wars, as so many resources are tied up in logistics. This is a problem for the forces attacking Benghazi. And yet a retreat would be terrible for morale – and morale is critical in this war.

  2. There seems to be an assumption here that at worst the military intervention would be a cynical gesture, and at best may help the ill-armed rebels to prevail. I don’t have any way of judging the validity of your assessment of military tactics but it seems that they hinge on that assumption. Given the West’s history I would tend to assume that humanitarian concerns are at the bottom of the list of motivations, top two would be stability of oil supply and a new “free market“. It’s the keenness to take military action that makes me most suspicious.

    I haven’t read the FT article (put off by their subscription nonsense). I did read the Spiked article and agree it’s a bit wishy-washy, not sure what you meant by “sacred principle of national sovereignty”, perhaps it should be the title of a new article.

    “Gaddafi loyalists who face the prospect of being lynched if Gaddafi wins”, err looses?

    Couple of links that might be worth a watch and a read.

    An extra tip for would be dictators, get yourself a nuke.

    1. Thanks David. I should really declare my hand: I have an intense dislike of the sort egotistical rule promoted by Muammar Gaddafi, and I want to see him come to a bad end. This makes me sympathetic to the rebels and inclined to give military action the benefit of the doubt. And yes, I don’t think it will make things much worse – although it might if ground forces became involved, but I rate this as most unlikely. My thesis is that the particulars of Gaddafi’s military and political situation make this an exceptional case where a politically sanitised intervention like this is likely to effective, when usually it isn’t.

      As to the West’s motives, I take a bit of a middle view. I think the motives are mixed, but the prime consideration of those promoting action is to spare themselves political embarassment at home (and this takes a slightly different form in each country). This isn’t pretty, but it’s as good as it gets. The charges of hypocrisy have validity – but I think these diminish if you allow the test that action has a reasonable prospect of success (it wouldn’t anywhere else), as well as a proximity principle (we are more concerned about countries that are physically closer to us).

      Thanks for pointing out the typo – will correct! Also for the links. Haven’t watched the video, but I feel a bit frustrated with article posted on Al Jazeera, which seems to be sitting on the fence; it does make some good points though, like the fact that some civilians are bound to get caught up in any action. I think they have missed the importance of air transport to Gaddafi’s efforts to recover territory; this is the main justification of the no-fly zone, not his use of aircraft to attack rebel positions.

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