Strong Obstacles Remain to Western Military Intervention in Libya

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An international community that in 2005 at the United Nations adopted the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) protocol might seem obliged to intervene directly in Libya. R2P, after all, holds that if a state is unable to protect its citizens from genocide or other mass atrocities, the international community has a responsibility to intervene militarily if other forms of pressure fail. And although the U.N. Security Council has moved with unusual speed to impose a raft of sanctions on the Libyan leadership, those measures aren’t going to save any Libyan citizens in the firing line of the regime’s desperate fight to survive.

Colonel Gaddafi is not going quietly, and the power struggle that may have already claimed many hundreds of lives threatens to claim many thousands more, and potentially spark a humanitarian catastrophe. So why not step in and apply the killer military blow to a teetering regime, preventing it from taking down tens of thousands of people with it?

The U.S. and its allies have already begun discussing and planning for the possibility of intervention in Libya, either in the form of using NATO air forces to impose a “no-fly” zone that would prevent Gaddafi using his fighter planes and helicopter gunships to attack his opponents (as he has already been doing), or in the deployment of troops on the ground to protect a humanitarian mission aimed at getting food and medical help to areas liberated from Gaddafi’s control by Libyan rebels.

Still neither Washington nor its closest allies are rushing to use force in Libya, because a number of forbidding obstacles present themselves to such a course of action.

1) Authorization

Any military intervention being weighed by the Obama Administration, even a no-fly zone, would require a U.N. Security Council mandate. And an international community innately suspicious of Western military intervention since the Iraq invasion of 2003 is unlikely to be easily forthcoming. Veto-wielding Russia and China remain strongly opposed right now — Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday called the no-fly zone proposal “superfluous” —  and it would likely take massive escalation of the death toll to raise any prospect of them shifting their opposition.

In the Arab world, including Libya, the United States is not widely seen as a force for good or even a neutral power. Instead, Washington is regarded with suspicion, its motives viewed through the prism of its invasion of Iraq, its close alliance with Israel and its role in propping up many of the Arab autocracies currently being challenged on the street. That may be one reason why the talk in Washington, until now, has been of a U.N.-mandated, NATO-enforced no-fly zone or ground force made up of European Union and African Union troops, with the U.S. playing a logistical and support role. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday bluntly warned, “we also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East.”

A key question is whether the Libyans fighting the Gaddafi regime actually want foreign military intervention. Some, including defecting diplomats in U.N. forums, appear to have urged it, but many of those on the frontline of the fight have spoken passionately against any foreign involvement. And it’s not clear who speaks for the opposition. The New York Times reports that an opposition council in Benghazi is debating whether to ask for U.N.-mandated air strikes on key military assets of Ghaddafi, but remains emphatically opposed to any foreign military presence.

Libya’s national identity is forged in substantial part on the bitter armed struggle against Western colonialism in the first half of the 20th century – a point not lost on Gaddafi, who frequently addresses young Libyans as those whose grandfathers fought the Italians. An armed intervention that was opposed by significant sections of the population could be very dangerous.

2) Civil War?

Although much of the media still uses the term “protesters” for those who have risen against Gaddafi, the Libyan rebellion has gone way beyond protest — it’s a popular insurrection that has splintered the military, with thousands of soldiers defecting to a rebel side that is quickly arming itself and replacing state authority in much of the country’s territory. Gaddafi’s control is said to be largely limited to parts of the capital and his home town of Sirt, but he still retains the loyalty of thousands of troops and citizens willing to kill and die for his regime. Right now, the situation is something of a stalemate, with the rebels lacking the military muscle to march on Tripoli and depose a regime that still wields far greater firepower, but the regime apparently unable to dislodge rebel forces from liberated towns even when it brings air power to bear. The situation is quite different to that in Egypt, where an unarmed protest movement confronted the regime, and the military refused to fire on its own people [EM] in Libya, both sides are armed, and believe they must fight or face certain death. In other words, it has already taken on the characteristics of a civil war. That may make the Western powers more reluctant to intervene directly.  Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron did suggest Tuesday that Western powers should consider arming the rebels — a proposal he later backed away from after it was dismissed by France and the U.S., saying more time was needed to understand the rebel movement’s intentions.

3) Mission Creep

A “no-fly” zone may look like a relatively limited commitment of Western military assets in a potentially decisive manner [EM] preventing the regime using its own air-power advantage to carry the day [EM] it’s not necessarily that simple. The no-fly zones imposed by NATO air forces over northern and southern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War didn’t halt Saddam Hussein’s savagery against the Shi’ites, and nor did it unseat him. Gaddafi has plenty of heavy weaponry to bring to bear on the ground, and once the Western powers had committed to using force in violation of Libyan sovereignty in the air, they could find themselves pressed to escalate that commitment if a no-fly zone failed to stop the slaughter. And as Marine General James Mattis warned Tuesday, enforcing a no-fly zone is, in itself a combat mission – it would, at the outset, require bombing raids to disable Libyan air defenses.

And even if ground forces are sent simply to protect humanitarian supplies, the Somalia experience is a reminder how easily that can turn into a full-blown combat mission. A Libyan regime fighting for its life won’t want aid shipments to reach territory liberated by its opponents, and it may even see clashes with foreign forces on Libyan soil as reinforcing its narrative that the country is under foreign attack.

4) Endgame

Even if Western powers could overcome the obstacles to using military forces to restrain or topple the Gaddafi regime, getting involved in the conflict could turn out to be far easier than it will be to extricate themselves. Libya is awash with weapons, many of them wielded by desperate men, with longstanding affinities of tribe and region playing a substantial role in shaping the balance of power, although in ways not easily comprehended from the outside. Although the Libyan state has “broken” as a result of its own tyranny and venality, to borrow from former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Rule“, there will be many in Washington, particularly in the Pentagon, reluctant to inherit “ownership” of what could be an extremely volatile situation.

The question of whether the West will bring any military force to bear on Gaddafi may rest, ultimately, with the Libyan leader himself. If he moves to massacre thousands of people unable to defend themselves, he may remove some of the restraints holding back Western intervention. But if the current situation is prolonged into a kind of mutual-siege stalemate, in which support for the regime is likely to crumble more quickly than the resolve of the rebels, direct intervention remains unlikely.