Libya: Dreams of Western Intervention

The crisis in Libya is quickly becoming an international embarrassment. Not, this time, because of Gadhafi’s clowinsh antics, but because it provides a spectacular opportunity for the world to see just how much Western power has declined during the last decade. 

Despite being the most powerful nation on earth, and having a military apparatus on a scale greater than the sum of every other country, the US has patently failed to impose its solutions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Far from America being able to force the Ayatollahs into submission, Iran gains strategic ground every day. The financial crisis has paralyzed the power of Western finance. Western central bankers have had to go begging to China and the oil rich countries for loans. The Arab revolt of 2011 has now destroyed the exclusive grip Anglo-American rule once had in the region. 

And now Libya promises to make explicit the powerlessness of the West. As Laurence Pope, ex-political advisor to the US "Central Command" and ex-ambassador to Tripoli told Le Monde in a sobering assessment, "Washington finds itself in a situation where there are only bad options and others that are worse." 

What has been the response in Europe? The European Left and the liberal bourgeoisie remain very interventionist and are firm believers in "humanitarian bombing." They are clamoring for a muscular Nato intervention along Balkan lines. An editorial in Left-leaning Guardian supports the call by liberal Lord Owen that "military preparations should be made and the necessary diplomatic approaches, above all to the Russians and the Chinese, set in train to secure UN authority for such action." Should the crisis continue, the Guardian argues, "intervention on the ground would have to be considered. The Egyptian army has the means, other Arab countries could contribute, and western forces could help." Yes, and it would all be over by Christmas. 

It is obvious that these war enthusiasts have not thought this through – but then they would not be doing any of the fighting. The plain fact is that there are no feasible military interventions even if the major powers could agree on an intervention plan, which is very far from being the case. Consider the options.

Imposing a no fly zone. This would require extensive air patrols by foreign air forces. They would have little effect since air power is not key to Gadhafi’s strategy. It would, however, create an atmosphere of major war and give Gadhafi a propaganda boost. 

Creating a military barrier or cordon sanitaire around eastern Libya to protect rebel positions.  Likewise this would crystallize the situation into a two-sided war, which could only play into Gadhafi’s hands. It is to the advantage of those that want to topple Gadhafi to avoid a war of entrenchment or fixed positions, preventing them from permeating every level of society and undermine further his crumbing power base. In any case such Western intervention would be impossible to implement. No Western commander is going to deploy troops at short notice into a theater unknown to his troops but well-known to an enemy who, in any case, cannot be easily distinguished from friendly forces. It is a recipe for disaster.

Sending in a "peace keeping" African Union force to separate the parties. One way to unite every Libyan behind Gadhafi, given the reputation of such forces in the past.

Sending in a "peace keeping" force made up of troops from Arab countries as The Guardian recommends. One way to unite every Libyan behind Gadhafi and infect and inflame the whole of the Middle East with the vicissitudes of a Libyan civil war. 

Bomb. But where? Tripoli? Gadhafi’s hideout?  In addition to the lack of any meaningful target, Western bombing might give others the idea of bombing targets that are indeed of great strategic value: oil wells and pipe lines. 

Sanctions. Libya’s massively long borders are totally porous and populated by peoples and countries keen to do business and who don’t give a damn about UN Security Council resolutions.  On the contrary, given the strategic importance of Libyan oil and gas to several European nations, Libya is the only country in a position to apply effective sanctions against anyone else. The price of oil has already shot up to $110.  Watch how the Italians start screaming in the next couple of weeks if the crisis goes on much longer. 

Unsurprisingly, Cameron and Sarkozy are making angry statements but otherwise are just looking at their shoes.

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Author: Susil Gupta

Susil Gupta is a London-based lawyer and writer.