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'Do Something' Is Not A Strategy

Commentary, 18 March 2011
International Institutions, Law and Ethics, Middle East and North Africa
The UN Resolution was the news many were waiting to hear - and Qadhafi's announcement of a ceasefire seems to have vindicated calls for intervention. But is this merely the first phase of an ill-conceived, protracted conflict?

The UN Resolution was the news many were waiting to hear - and Qadhafi's announcement of a ceasefire seems to have vindicated calls for intervention. But is this merely the first phase of an ill-conceived, protracted conflict?

By Adrian Johnson for RUSI.org

 NFZ II
US Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon and F-15C Eagle aircraft enforcing a no-fly zone over Northern Iraq as part of Operation Northern Watch.

It is the news so many people were begging to hear: the UN Security Council voted, with five abstentions, for 'all necessary means' to curtail Qadhafi's forces. After the resolution passed, television networks flicked over to Al-Jazeera's coverage of cheering rebel crowds in Benghazi. The international community has finally decided to do something, and it seems Libya will join Bosnia and Kosovo in the pantheon of righteous intervention. And it gets even better: the morning after the resolution passed, Libyan government forces declared a ceasefire to respect the will of the international community and - somewhat cynically - respect the lives of civilians they had few qualms about machine-gunning only days earlier.

If only it were so straightforward. Not even a half-day after the ceasefire was declared, there are already reports of renewed shelling and fighting between Qadhafi's forces and the rebels. Events are moving quickly, and we cannot be sure whether the old Colonel will call the bluff or will - in the style of Karadzic and Mladic almost twenty years ago - play the ceasefire game for his own ends. Nevertheless, onlookers should perhaps pause for thought and temper their euphoria.

The first reason for concern is the nature of the resolution itself and the precedent it might now set. Resolution 1973 is a Chapter VII mandate - the strongest the UN can bring to bear in such situations. But Chapter VII was not designed for intervention in armed struggle within the borders of sovereign jurisdictions: rather, it is explicitly a set of provisions to deal with serious breaches of and threats to international peace and security.

While it is true that these same articles of the UN Charter were invoked in 1999 in Kosovo (though no resolution was forthcoming), another ostensibly internal matter, there was at least an unambiguous threat to regional stability in the form of massive refugee columns streaming towards the border with Macedonia - a state concerned with its own ethnic-Albanian minority. And in Kosovo the argument for intervention could point to mass graves and ethnic cleansing: reasons that, after the shame of Bosnia, had become justifiable cause to launch military action.

So it would seem that Resolution 1973 has, in effect, invoked the spirit - if not the letter - of the Responsibility to Protect, the idea that states cannot hide behind sovereignty to abuse their own people. A noble intention. But if this is the case, why is it not stated clearly? The fact remains that despite the initial one-sided massacres, the unrest in Libya quickly became a civil war. While a civil war - like any other - can be violent, cruel and see the death of innocent civilians, it has not until now been seen as a reason for legitimated international intervention. The international community may protest that it is intervening only to protect civilians; but by appearing to be a resolution very much targeted at Qadhafi, the UN-backed military strikes now appear to be favouring a particular side in a conflict by their very intention and design.

Yet even if one waves away these objections of principle - perhaps it is indeed a good thing that the old-fashioned respect of state sovereignty is ditched as nothing more than the shield of dictators and tyrants - then there are more practical reasons to be worried. For it is not clear that France, the UK and the US actually have a workable strategy. As the early years of EC involvement in Bosnia showed, 'doing something' is not always better than doing nothing.

So the decision, it seems, has now been taken to, if necessary, bomb Qadhafi's armoured columns through an open-ended mandate bearing the appropriately ambiguous 'all necessary means'. If the current ceasefire should fail, then the first targets to be hit will probably be the airfields, command infrastructure and anti-air systems of the incumbent regime. Depending on how generously the mandate is interpreted, strikes on key military targets, particularly those threatening the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, would also be likely.

Still, were all this to go to plan, the question remains of what would happen next. Authorising 'all necessary means', but emphatically not ground forces, smacks of the same mistake of Kosovo: once again, the West is trying to make peace from 10,000 feet but hoping not to get its hands dirty. But what is the strategy? Qadhafi's forces could try to seize Benghazi without delay while the international community scrapes together the aircraft and ground crew. If they succeed, what should be bombed? If the regime does in fact crumble under the weight of French, British and US bombing, who is going to stabilise the country? Will the rebels - with no compelling evidence that they are indeed a coherent, united front - be relied upon to do this? What if they splinter and fragment; or, worse, what if they seek bloody revenge after foreign support - and the resulting mass graves put blood on the West's hands?

These questions remain to be answered. But given the previous track record in aerial intervention, even on Europe's doorstep, there are few reasons to assume that a workable strategy has been crafted. In essence, this is a gamble. Maybe it will work; but if it does not, it is unlikely that the international community is ready for a concerted, drawn out intervention on behalf of the rebels.

The story so far of the Libyan revolution - like in Egypt and Tunisia - has been one of angry youth rising up against the corrupt kleptocracy that has held sway over them for decades. But we cannot be sure that this will remain the case as Western jets scream over the Libyan desert for days, weeks or months. The familiar old canard of the West only caring about oil will become a compelling story for the disaffected and disillusioned; critics will point to the verbal dithering over the shooting of unarmed protestors and Saudi intervention in Bahrain. A mighty coincidence, they may say, that an old foe of the West, sitting on plenty of oil, gets something more than words. For Western leaders who genuinely hope to save Libyan lives, this may seem unfair. But in a region where ideals are cynically interpreted as craven self-interest, this risk cannot simply be wished away.

There is no doubt that Qadhafi was a cruel dictator: if he goes, the world should not shed a tear. Perhaps the rabbit will be pulled out of the hat and in three months there will stand a democracy in Tripoli, in part thanks to Western arms; we should not dismiss the possibility that air strikes could indeed create the stalemate that often drives leaders - even stubborn ones like Qadhafi - to the negotiating table, and perhaps a peaceful exit. Such optimism, however, must not ignore first lesson of international intervention: there is no purely military action, only political. Is the West really ready to risk another quagmire?

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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