Western intervention and the lessons from Libya

Posted on | september 11, 2011 | No Comments

As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and we contemplate what went wrong with the past decade, we should look at Libya for lessons on western intervention!  In the aftermath of 9/11, American neoconservatives tried to ‘liberate’ the Arab world, and bring ‘democracy’ in the Middle East.  It was argued that failed states like Afghanistan and authoritarian regimes like Iraq have allowed and/or contributed to the rise and growth of such international terrorist like Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

America, with the support or just consent of the rest of the western world, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and engaging in nation-building through occupation and ‘reform’ of the political institutions in these two countries.  Furthermore, the Bush administration pushed other Arab nations to advance election reforms, improve the participation of women and other minorities in the political system, and overall accept greater economic and political liberalization.  Ten years later and ‘democracy’ is still a theory in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other Arab nations.

However, Libya (which has contributed as much as Iraq on global terrorism) is emerging from 42 years of authoritarian rule by one Muammar Gaddafi with a better chance of achieving that which has eluded American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan: sustainable pluralistic self-governance.

Although most analyst would be quick to point out that it’s too early to tell what the future holds for Libya, I am convinced that Libya will not take as long as Iraq or Afghanistan to achieve democratic rule.  Why?  Because of the nature of western intervention!

The Strategy for Libya –

American-style “shock and awe” tactics (implemented in Iraq as a response to the U.S. failure in Vietnam) were ruled out from the beginning.  Learning from Iraq, NATO decided from the outset that the last thing the rebels needed when they eventually took power was a civil infrastructure wrecked by bombing.  So NATO warplanes took great care to hit only military targets (another lesson learned from NATO’s involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo).  According to some estimates, NATO’s nearly 8,000 strike sorties killed fewer than a dozen civilians.  Attrition, particularly of the regime’s supply routes and its command-and-control centers, slowly ground down Qaddafi’s military forces.  Although the situation on the ground often looked chaotic, rebels became battle-ready and better armed, while their opponents’ fighting spirit collapsed.  Ultimately, western intervention was minimal, and the overthrow of Gaddafi was achieved by the people on the ground, and not by an invading force.

President Obama decided that military action was necessary to prevent a slaughter in Benghazi, but he opposed unilateral action by the United States.  (Actually, France and the UK wanted to intervene, but the U.S. was not willing to be the primary provider of military man-power and weapons systems.)  So, the White House seized the opportunity to advance burden-sharing, which meant that the Europeans and Arabs, who were closer to the problem, should do most of the work.

The lesson for America therefore is: if you want to bring democracy in a country ruled by an authoritarian regime, limit your interference to air/sea support, and let the indigenous population do the work on the ground. 

  1. Use the air force to neutralize the regimes air force and heavy weapons (tanks, missals, artillery, etc.). 
  2. Use the navy to blockade the authoritarian regime, and to supply the rebels with food and ammunition. 
  3. Do not use any ground forces which will be perceived as an occupying force and thus resented and rejected by the native people (other than special forces for technical assistance and training).  Chances are that a fight between an oppressing regime and revolutionaries carried out with small arms will be both fair and favor the always larger in numbers revolutionaries.

Political and Legal Implications –

Although the U.S. and NATO involvement in Libya has been a relative success, many analysts have argued that the campaign exposed NATO’s shortcoming and raised questions about the very legality of western intervention.

President Obama got a lot of criticism for “leading from behind” both diplomatically and militarily.  As we all know, it was the UK and France pushing hardest for a military intervention, and also took the lead in rallying support around the world first with the ‘contact group on Libya’ and now with the larger ‘Friends of Libya’ group.  Furthermore, the Obama administration already believed that U.S. allies needed to do more of the fighting and pay more of the costs (especially for conflicts more geographically connected to Europe), and Libya provided the validation.

However, according to a recent article by the Economist (NATO after Libya – A troubling victory),

NATO’s European members were highly dependent on American military help to keep going. 

In particular,

America provided about three-quarters of the aerial tankers without which the strike fighters, mostly flying from bases in Italy, could not have reached their targets.  America also provided most of the cruise missiles that degraded Colonel Qaddafi’s air defenses sufficiently for the no-fly zone to be rapidly established.  When stocks of precision-guided weapons ran low after only a couple of months, America had to provide fresh supplies. 

And finally,

few attack missions were flown without American electronic warfare aircraft operating above as “guardian angels”.

Overall, NATO’s involvement in Libya could restore the moral authority of the U.S., as defender of democracy and human rights.  NATO’s shortcoming could be blessings in disguise: a wake-up call for the future of the alliance, and European priories for future military acquisitions and developments.

On the other hand, some have argued that the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign states, as set by the UN Charter and other Declarations by the UN General Assembly were violated by the NATO and the other foreign forces that helped the Libyan rebels overthrow Gaddafi.  Sergey Brezkun of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences goes as far as to call this western intervention

“a return to the old days of ‘gun-boat diplomacy’.”

Professor Brezkun concludes that:

Western intervention in Libya has deeply and outrageously defied standard principles and norms of international law.  If we do not speak about it out loud, if we do not respond to it in our everyday politics, we create the conditions for future interventions like the one taken by the US and NATO.  The Libyan scenario could then repeat in any country – from Syria, which is “next on the list”, to Russia.

Professor Brezkun is right in believing that U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya has initiated a new political epoch in which ‘international law’ (as it has been applied under the old post WW-II Cold-War model) will change.  International law, the very nature of which is questionable at best, is unlike international principles.  Laws are meant to be specific, rigid and confining, and can only be changed by other laws.  Conversely, principles are broad, inclusive and guiding, and can certainly change (and do certainly change) with every generation.  The UN Charter and the Declarations of the UN General Assembly are not ‘laws’ in the way we understand laws in the context of a nation-state – there are rather principles which reflect the wills and wishes of their generation!

The rest of the world has a moral responsibility to intervene on behalf of the people of the Arab Spring, and as long as it does so with the blessing of the UN (Security Council of General Assembly), such intervention will be legitimate.  We are writing a new book on ‘intervention in the internal affairs of foreign states’, one where ‘international law’ is organic and subject to the continuous support of public opinion and the approval of the global community (applicable only on a case by case basis) and not rigidly applying the codification of ‘cold-war’ era treaties.

What about Syria, Yemen and Bahrain? –

The question now becomes what to do in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.  In all three countries, to varying degrees, peaceful people-revolutions are being under constant attack by the ruling regimes.  Eventually, like in Libya, the people will take-up arms against these oppressive regimes, in a way to prevent the death of further innocent people and liberate their societies.

In both Syria and Yemen, the ruling regime is associated (to a greater degree than in Libya) with a specific ethnic or religious group.  Should the U.S. and NATO therefore, apply the same strategy as in Libya and help the people overthrow the ruling regimes, or wait for the militaries to take over like it happened in Egypt?  What should be the metric by which to judge when western intervention is necessary?  Maybe it should be the measure of the regimes violent response to otherwise peaceful demonstrations?  In Syria (and Bahrain) the regimes response has been so brutal that mirrors Gaddafi’s reaction, while in Yemen the conflict is developing into a civil war with the peaceful demonstrators caught in the middle.

Just as there was no template for the Libyan revolution, the overthrow of Gaddafi will not provide a model for what happens next in Syria or Yemen or Bahrain.  The rest of the world should apply diplomatic and financial pressure to all there regimes, provide technical and humanitarian support to the rebels, and when the people do finally rise in arms the U.S. and NATO should be there with air-strikes, naval blockades, and specialized military assistance.  What must NOT happen however is a repeat of the U.S./NATO occupation-style intervention of Iraq and Afghanistan, with massive bombings, and ‘boots on the ground.’

Now is the Opportunity –

Yes, the transition from Gaddafi’s Libya to a modern democratic society will be long, messy and at times uncertain (as is the nature of revolutions).  The National Transitional Council (NTC), of questionable legitimacy and appeal, will have its hands full in the weeks ahead.  The NTC will have to restore electricity, battle food and water shortages, reopen schools, pay civil servant and police salaries – not to mention deal with the different tribal loyalties of the rebel fighters, and the many weapons all over the country.  However, the only way this revolution (and all the other ones currently unfolding in the Arab world) can succeed is if the people own it – the good and the bad!

What is happening in the Arab world is an opportunity of monumental proportion.  No one can deny that extremist Islamism and authoritarian regimes in the region played some role in the rise and proliferation of global terrorism.  President Bush tried to fight this development with his war on terror and the invasion of Iraq/Afghanistan, bud judging by the fact that Al Qaeda attacks have happened since 9/11 (in Europe) I’d say he has failed.  Now, the people of the Arab Spring are overthrowing dictators left and right for all the right reasons and with all the right methods (mostly peaceful – people driven revolutions), which could lead to the creation of the conditions to eradicate extremist Islamism and global terrorism once and for all!

AUTHOR: Nasos Mihalakas
URL: http://mihalakas.wordpress.com and http://chinatrade.foreignpolicyblogs.com/
E-MAIL: nasos.mihalakas [at] gmail.com


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