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Fighting the last war again in Libya

2011 March 17
by Paul Vallely

Generals, it is said, are always fighting the last war. The same is evidently true of armchair generals, politicians and pundits if the various postures struck over Libya this week are anything to go by. It is hard for most to escape from the long shadows cast by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is true of both those who advocated and opposed the earlier conflicts. The French are the keenest on air strikes on Colonel Gaddafi perhaps because they have no regrets at over-enthusiastic support for the war against Saddam. They were then, you may recall, in Washington’s delicate phrase, cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

By contrast, the mood is a lot less gung-ho in the White House where fingers have been burned in Iraq and Afghanistan. “History has shown that when you rush into these things, you get it wrong,” said one Obama staffer – though there are some in Washington who have learned no lessons: John Bolton, Bush’s moustachioed ambassador to the United Nations, insists that once Washington has said “Gaddafi’s got to go” it cannot sit on its hands without undermining American prestige.

But the option is not do nothing or start blasting at the Gaddafi air defences. A No-Fly-Zone is problematic even if you just begin with a warning rather than with a pre-emptive attack on Libya’s military communications and radar systems. The country is 1.7 million sq. km – about 33 times the size of Bosnia where a No-Fly-Zone was imposed by NATO. That will take a lot of aircraft flying from Cyprus, Italy, Greece, Turkey and possibly southern France. If Col Gaddafi responds by firing surface-to-air missiles against aircraft policing the zone, aircrews would have to blast Libyan air defence targets. That would seriously escalate the crisis.

The West does not have a good record on this Arab awakening. We moved to freeze the assets of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators only after they had fled or resigned. Emboldened by that we spoke out against Col Gaddafi earlier, only to find he stopped dithering and began to fight back. It is perfectly conceivable he will now win and restart the dormant nuclear weapons programme which Tony Blair persuaded him to freeze in return for technical help in his oil fields.

Parallels between Libya and Iraq are inexact. Col Gaddafi is a nasty piece of work but he is not massacring civilians as Saddam did with the Kurds. We must take care not to allow the Gaddafi regime to rally its supporters with the cry that the rebels are the stooges of the oil-greedy West.

The old conundrum in the Middle East was whether we should prefer democracy to stability. Some in Europe still lean towards the latter, fearing Libya might descend into an al-Qa’ida chaos prompting mass migration to Italy, France and Spain. But the old choice between interests and values no longer holds. With stability gone our interests lie in promoting our values in the Arab world.

The truth is there are less radical options than bombing to assist those fighting for democracy in Libya. We could increase sanctions. We could move warships to jam Libyan military communications and radar to discourage attacks by Gaddafi jets and helicopters. We could supply rocket-propelled grenades to the rebels to fight Tripoli’s tanks and aircraft. There have been reports, discounted in Washington, that the US is already doing this in a secret deal with the Saudi Arabian military.

But there is no need for clandestine deals here. Giving the rebels more sophisticated weaponry would provide them with a big psychological boost. And the more the fighting in Libya resembles a civil war, as opposed to an all-out Gaddafi massacre, the less need there will be for direct military intervention. Ethics and common sense are not incompatible here.

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