To Intervene, Or Not To Intervene

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To further Tony’s excellent post yesterday on obstacles that any eventual Western military action in or around Libya will face, it will be interesting to watch in the coming hours and days whether a more consistent view on outside intervention forms on the Libyan street. For the moment (as the NY Times piece Tony refers to notes) there seems to be a clear discrepancy between rebel leaders and rank and file opponents to the Gaddafi regime not just about whether foreign help is desirable—but what form it might take. Meanwhile, differences of opinion among Western nations also seems to be surfacing about the wisdom of getting directly involved in what has blossomed into a civil war. Though majority views both in Libya and in the West clearly want to see any outside intervention avoided, those attitudes could change if Gaddafi’s backers successfully manage to push back.

Reports Wednesday from the eastern port city Brega say fighting has broken out between rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces mounting a drive to recapture control of the town. Early in the day, those loyalists took control of a major refinery installation in the area, as well as an adjacent airstrip. According to television footage and comments by reporters on the scene, those same troops were being backed up by military aircraft bombing a large ammunition depot near Brega. At nearly the same time, Gaddafi forces also launched an assault on the of the nearby town Ajdabiya in an effort to wrest it from rebel control. Though those offensives could scarcely be described as a turning of the tide that allowed opponents to take control of most of Libya’s major cities last week, there is concern that the new loyalist push—combined with Gaddafi’s success in retaining his hold on Tripoli and surrounding areas—may the armed campaign to depose the dictator may take much longer than hoped. If so, may influence attitudes on how the international community might help to end the conflict.

For now, anecdotal evidence from media reports suggests the most ordinary Libyans are strongly against any foreign intervention in their struggle. Most coverage quoting Libyans arguing for outside support tend to come from officials organizing rebel strongholds, and whose pragmatism may arise from greater military experience than most idealistic Libyans who oppose intervention. Though the selection of people questioned and tone of their answers may well differ between national media, French reports cite an overwhelming number of Libyans expressing hostility to the participation of foreign, and indicate that is by far the majority view. Le Monde and le Parisien, for example, carry interviews with citizen rebels and military officials who have joined the popular uprising passionately warning against outside intervention, and insisting the fight is one freedom-craving Libyans must win on their own. “No foreign soldiers, the Libyan people will win by itself,” le Monde quotes from banners hung in Benghazi. “(Intervention) would be a catastrophe, a nightmare scenario.”

The New York Times story quotes members of rebel organizing committee saying they plan to request some sort of international help, Le Monde cites a similar official using even more pointed language against Western involvement. “No one has forgotten the American bombing of 1986 that didn’t spare Benghazi,” said the official, calling himself Commander Idriss. “Libyans have been treated like dogs by Gaddafi. Our revolution must restore the dignity of the people, who will never accept the arrival of foreign soldiers. That would be worse than Iraq—an endless war.”

Rahma, a 21 year-old resident of Tripoli TIME spoke with by phone on Feb. 25 echoed similar sentiments. “This is something Libyans must do without outside help—(intervention) that could lead some people to say Libya is becoming the next Iraq or Afghanistan, or turning Libya into just that,” Rahma said. “We ask and will gratefully accept economic and development aid, and help to reconstruct the country. But we need to do this on our own, without foreign intervention.”

She and others who share that position may well get their wish—thanks in part to contrasting enthusiasm within the West over wading in. British Prime Minister David Cameron found himself walking back his  March 1 call for NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Libya after Western allies—including American officials—distanced themselves from it, terming any plans about foreign involvement in the Libyan conflict were “premature”.

Those comments were echoed later in the day by the new French Foreign Affairs Minister, Alain Juppé, who said that while nothing was off the table for consideration, Western boots on Libyan soil was something he thought would have “extremely counter-productive” consequences—and will therefore almost certainly never materialize.

“Different options are being studied — notably that of an air exclusion zone…but at this time, military intervention isn’t being anticipated,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé told parliament Tuesday after noting that any measure would require a “clear mandate” from the United Nations. With fall out of Western invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan clearly in mind, Juppé then explained why Paris seems to be ruling out direct troop involvement—clear mandate or not.  “I don’t know what would be the reaction on the Arab street, if Arabs around the Mediterranean saw NATO forces landing on southern Mediterranean territory,” Juppé said.

That’s a wariness that appears to be shared in war-fatigued planning offices in governments across the West, as well as in the minds and hearts of Libyan rebels who seem to view outside help as both humiliating, destined to create new problems, and quote possibly the only recipe for rallying popular support back to Gaddafi’s side.