Montreal, April 15, 2011 • No 288


Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from McGill.



Don't Just Stand There, Do Something!
Libya and the Perils of Intervention


by Adam Allouba


          The Arab Spring that germinated in Tunisia and blossomed in Egypt assumed a more sinister form when it reached Libya. What started on February 15 as a series of protests in the country’s second city of Benghazi gradually spread to neighbouring towns, soon engulfing the entire eastern region and threatening leader Muammar Qaddhafi in Tripoli itself. From there, unfortunately, the protests degenerated into a civil war between the rebel-held east and the regime-controlled west. Worse yet, the conflict was a serious mismatch. After much initial loss of territory and domestic support, the regime began in early March to roll back dissident gains until on March 17 their forces threatened Benghazi itself.


          Faced with Qaddhafi’s pledge of “no mercy, no pity” for his opponents, the UN Security Council uncharacteristically sprang into action that very night, passing Resolution 1973 to authorize “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” Benghazi erupted with cheers and fireworks at the news. Canada’s contribution to the effort consists of a frigate, six fighter jets and four other aircraft.

          While the rebels made sizeable advances at the outset of the intervention, their gains proved fleeting. The situation seems to have reached a stalemate between a regime unable to fully deploy its forces due to the threat of airstrikes and rebels lacking the necessary equipment to take proper advantage of their new-found air superiority.

          Ideally, the rebels will quickly overthrow Qaddhafi, the intervention will end and Libya will become a free country. However, there is reason to doubt that this best-case scenario will materialize or that this “kinetic military action” will go smoothly or end well.

What Are We Doing, Exactly?

          Over a week after the UN vote, Barack Obama delivered an address that purported to explain why the United States and, by implication, the rest of the world, was intervening in Libya. The crux of the speech was his assertion that while there was “no question” that we would all be better off without Qaddhafi in power, he pledged only “non-military” means of pursuing that objective. Instead, the operation itself would be limited to the protection of civilians.

Protecting Civilians?

          If the president was being truthful, then there is no answer to the big question hanging over the mission: what comes next? On the one hand, a victorious Qaddhafi is liable to carry out his original threat of a bloodbath. On the other, in Obama’s own words, “If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter.” The rebels themselves have acknowledged being “woefully outmanned and underequipped” and there is little indication that they can overthrow the regime on their own. If we are to remain in Libya until they do indeed achieve that goal, our commitment is open-ended and there is therefore no end in sight to our involvement.

Regime Change?

          Of course, the coalition could simply change tack and attempt to remove Qaddhafi. It could target him personally from the air, an idea endorsed by the UK’s Defence Secretary. Or it could equip and fund the rebels to enable them to do the job. A final option is to intervene militarily on the ground, using Western troops to overthrow the regime.

          Thankfully, the memory of Iraq remains sufficiently vivid to diminish the appeal of this latter option. Suppose, then, that we bombed Qaddhafi into oblivion. While few would mourn his passing, would that end the danger to civilians and allow us to proclaim our mission accomplished? In itself, his death would mean little, since the threat comes not from his person but from the troops he commands. If they shift their loyalty to someone else in the regime, nothing will have changed. And if they splinter into warring factions, we will have exacerbated the problem by bringing Libya closer to Somali-style chaos. Of course, they could bring the rebels victory―and raise another set of questions we will examine later.

          The second option, providing the rebels with equipment and money, has support from within the Obama administration and the interim Egyptian military government, and from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. So, suppose the coalition does arm and finance the rebels (despite the legal obstacles). What weapons do we provide? Obsolete equipment may not be up to the task, whereas state-of-the-art weapons could come back to haunt us later. Who gets the arms? We would presumably go through designated intermediaries, rather than hand over a stealth bomber to anyone waving Libya’s pre-Qaddhafi flag. But the opposition is divided and some of its leading members have been likened to squabbling children. Deciding who gets access to the weapons inevitably means taking sides in the internal politics of Libya’s opposition movement―as if taking sides in its civil war wasn’t enough. For that matter, how do we control what happens to the weapons afterwards? Actually, the answer to that one is simple: we don’t. Instead, we keep our fingers crossed that they don’t end up in the hands of the wrong people.

Whom Are We Supporting?

          During the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, many asked who was behind the protests, what their intentions were and what might emerge after the dictators were toppled. The debate was largely theoretical, however, as the local populations managed to depose their rulers without external assistance. Libya’s revolt is, of course, different: by mid-March, it was clear that the regime’s brute force would win the day. By deciding to intervene, the international community has thrown its lot in with the rebels―for better or for worse.

"During the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, many asked who was behind the protests, what their intentions were and what might emerge after the dictators were toppled. The debate was largely theoretical, however, as the local populations managed to depose their rulers without external assistance. Libya’s revolt is, of course, different."

          Having previously extolled the revolutionaries in Tunis and in Cairo, I will not impute negative motivations to their Libyan counterparts. There are no doubt a great many among them who yearn simply for a taste of liberty. However, this time the nature of events has made the situation much more inscrutable than was the case for Libya’s neighbours. Some problematic figures have come to the fore, while other groups with sinister motives lurk in the shadows, ready to take advantage of the chaos.

Meet the New Boss…

          Perhaps the most prominent rebel commander is General Abdel-Fattah Younis, who had played a key role in Libya’s government since the 1969 coup that brought Qaddhafi to power. Until his defection, he was the Libyan minister of the interior―another way of saying torturer in chief. While it is possible that Younis had a genuine epiphany and is now a dedicated humanist, Qaddhafi’s attempt to kill him probably had something to do with his change of heart. Even if Qaddhafi is deposed, what if the new regime is made up of those who, like Younis, spent so many years serving the deposed tyrant? Would the West be obligated to continue its intervention, lest the new regime pose as serious a threat to civilians as did Qaddhafi’s?

          Other high-level opposition actors include Omar El-Hariri, who participated in the 1969 coup but fled to America six years later, long-time political prisoner Ahmed al-Sanusi, and former justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil, whom Human Rights Watch praised for his stance against the regime’s cruelty. While they may be more attractive figures than Younis, there seems to be little indication that any of them has a constituency among Libyans. Even assuming that they would make good leaders of a free country, what sign is there that they would wield influence once the regime is toppled?

What Lies Beneath

          Beyond the leadership are the rank-and-file rebels―the bulk of whom, I repeat, are most likely pro-freedom (albeit not in the full libertarian sense). But as Libya’s war rages on, groups such as al-Qaeda will see an opportunity to exploit a vacuum as they have in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. It is impossible to gauge the extent to which such entities are active among Libya’s opposition, but the longer the country remains unstable, the more likely they are to make inroads. Could Western jets eventually be providing cover for terrorists? This concern becomes even more pressing if the West is seriously considering channelling weapons and money to the rebels―a problem that has not escaped the Obama administration’s notice.

So What Now?

          Our greatest challenge is that time most likely works against us. Continued bombardment will inevitably kill civilians and rebel fighters, triggering Arab and Muslim anger that the West can ill afford and alienating the very people we are purportedly helping. Such accidents are unavoidable, as it can be impossible to distinguish between pro and anti-Qaddhafi forces from the air, not to mention that the regime has little compunction about using its own people as human shields. At the same time, when coalition forces have adopted a more cautious approach, they have been accused of not doing enough to help. In other words, all the military intervention has to do is to stop all of Qaddhafi’s troops without accidentally harming anyone else.

          Time will also raise the operation’s price tag, weakening support in cash-strapped Western countries. To this, add the inevitable argument that allowing defeat would embolden other dictators and undermine the West’s credibility, and that a victorious Qaddhafi would return to sponsoring terror. Indeed, British Prime Minister David Cameron has already made this point. The seemingly logical conclusion will be that if the rebels cannot overthrow Qaddhafi, we need Western boots to finish the job. For those keeping score at home, that would mean occupying a third Muslim country and providing yet another rallying cry for terrorist recruiters.

          These are all problems without clear solutions and questions with no clear answers. Most ominously of all, we should ponder what lesson the oppressors in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere have learned from Qaddhafi’s abandonment of his weapons of mass destruction not so long ago. We may have inadvertently taught them that there are no better guarantors of their security than anthrax, mustard gas and the atomic bomb.

          While it is understandable to want to support people fighting for their freedom against a tyrant, there are few human impulses less productive than the urge to “do something!” without thorough consideration of the consequences. After all, everyone knows what the road to hell is paved with. The makers of both foreign and domestic policy could learn a great deal from doctors, whose most sacred duty―even above healing their patients―is “First, do no harm.”