The Times Libya 22 March 2011
Here are three uncomfortable truths which we need to get used to about the international operation in Libya.
First, unless we are very lucky, this will not end tidily. One of the truths about war is that, once launched, tidiness and predictability are frequently the first casualty. Bosnia is still untidy. So is Kosovo. So is East Timor. So is Sierra Leone. So for that matter – still – is Northern Ireland.
After the first Gulf war in 1991, the international coalition had liberated Kuwait. But they were left in a very untidy place, in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was still in power, there was de facto independence for Kurdestan in the north and a no fly zone that had to be sustained for 12 years to stop him slaughtering his people. Does that mean we shouldn’t have liberated Kuwait? Of course not.
The right question here is not, will there be a tidy outcome? but would it have been worse if we hadn’t done it?
And the answer to that – with Libya, as with Kuwait in 1991 – is unquestionably, yes. The alternative would have been the brutal crushing of free citizens, a slaughter of Arabs on a grand scale by a leader who, in his own words promised “no mercy”, the triumph of a tyrant and a check on the Arab Spring from which we all, and the Arab peoples in particular, have so much to gain.
I suspect that the end point of this will look a bit like the end of the Gulf war in 1991. International law will have been upheld. But a tyrant will remain in place, at least for the short term. Some Libyans will be free from mortal danger and able to make their own choices. Others will not. We may well then just have to wait and see whether the citizens of Gaddafi-land are prepared to live their lives without the freedoms of their fellow Libyans next door. That is not a perfect outcome – or a neat one. But it will better than things would otherwise have been and – for a bit at least – we may have to be satisfied with that. If, as in post 1991 Iraq, we have to maintain a no fly zone for as long as it takes until the situation is resolved, then that’s not going to be comfortable – or for that matter cheap – either. But as someone once said, if you think keeping the peace is expensive, try returning to war.
In Libya, however, one thing is not the same as Iraq in 1991.The enterprise to which we have set our hand, is only legal if what happens next is left exclusively to the people of Libya themselves to resolve. The UN Resolution makes it clear that this action is about protecting the Arabs of Libya, not pursuing western policy in the region.
Which leads us to the second uncomfortable truth.
People keep on asking, what’s the end game?
The blunt answer is, we don’t know.
Because the answer to that question is not in our hands. It’s for Libyans to frame their own end game, not us. Our job is limited to preserving their freedom to do so. That won’t be comfortable either. But it may prove easier than what we tried in Iraq and Afghanistan; forming up as a western cowboy’s posse to use force to pursue our policies and our armies to design other people’s governments. That approach has not, to put it mildly, been a great success.
If, in our increasingly dangerous and interconnected world, we are to succeed in developing an enduring framework of international law buttressed by the ability to assemble the wide international support necessary to enforce it, then this is the way its going to have to be in the future and we had better get used to that.
The third uncomfortable truth is about Gadaffi. Are we entitled to target him? Is regime change a legitimate aim?
Everyone, led by Jeremy Paxman, wants a straight answer to this. But it is not in our interest to give one. It is not helpful in war to tell your enemy what you are not going to do. Sorry, Jeremy, but his is one area where opaqueness has a purpose. It is no part of our job to help Mr Gaddafi sleep safer in his bed at night than he ought to.
As it happens – but whisper it quietly please – regime change, however achieved, is not at the moment, covered under Resolution 1973. But that may not always be the case. Resolution 1973 is dedicated to protecting Libyans and nothing else. But what if, to take the extreme example, Muamar Gaddafi were to put himself at the head of an armoured column which begins a new slaughter? Would he be immune form attack then? Clearly not.
We are dealing with a dynamic situation, not a fixed one.
Mr Gaddafi, unrestrained by law or any civilized code of behaviour, has all the flexibility he needs for action. I see no wisdom in making statements now which may limit ours in circumstances we cannot predict.
Four things take precedence over all others now. To keep our focus on the safety of Libyan Arabs. To keep Mr Gaddaffi guessing. To remain strictly within the legal limits of the UN Resolution. And to do whatever is necessary to hold the international coalition together, especially when it comes to the Arab League and regional support.
All other things, however uncomfortable, are secondary.