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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.