A coalition of mostly Western nations, including Canada, has entered a war with loosely defined objectives and an uncertain end.
Following much-delayed approval from the United Nations Security Council for a no-fly zone and the use of “all necessary measures” short of occupation to protect civilians, France, Britain and the United States launched a barrage of air and cruise missile strikes against Libyan air defences, armour and command centres last weekend. Canadian CF-18 fighters flew their first sorties over Libya Monday. Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s expansive Bab al-Aziziya complex in Tripoli was attacked Sunday night—suggesting, despite conflicting statements from nations fighting in Libya, that Gadhafi himself is a target.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs Monday that the Security Council resolution “does not provide legal authority for action to bring about Gadhafi’s removal from power by military means.” Britain’s chief of defence staff, Gen. David Richards, said targeting Gadhafi was “not allowed under the UN resolution.” But Defence Secretary Liam Fox said striking at the Libyan leader was “potentially a possibility.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, who for weeks appeared reluctant to involve American forces in the Libyan war, said the mission’s goals centred on protecting civilians rather than regime change. Asked if these goals might be achieved with Gadhafi still in power, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said, “That’s certainly potentially one outcome.” Speaking in Chile Monday, Obama said Gadhafi “needs to go,” but suggested this might be accomplished using “a wide range of tools” besides military action.
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper was more hawkish, or perhaps simply more forthright. He did not explicitly back Gadhafi’s overthrow, but came close. “We’re dealing with an individual and with a regime that will not be satisfied with the mere re-imposition of authority. The nature of this leader, and the nature of his regime, is they will massacre every single individual they even remotely suspect of disloyalty. This is an intolerable situation,” he said. “If Mr. Gadhafi loses his capacity to enforce his will through vastly superior armaments, then he simply won’t be able to sustain his grip on the country. He will not last very long.”
France, meanwhile, has already recognized the Benghazi-based opposition as Libya’s legitimate government. Clearly French President Nicolas Sarkozy does not share Mullen’s apparent acceptance that Gadhafi might be left in power.
Allied nations fighting a war, in other words, have very different ideas as to what that war is about.
MANY OF these divisions are the inevitable result of assembling a large and diverse coalition for military action. But they also speak to the vague goals and open-ended nature of the conflict that countries now attacking Libya have gotten themselves into.
The UN resolution calls for a no-fly zone, which doesn’t sound as belligerent as bombing runs and is a phrase more likely to win wider support. But despite U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s warning that air strikes were exactly what imposing a no-fly zone would entail, the Arab League, which had asked for a no-fly zone, still protested when the attacks began—later backtracking to say that the Arab League and the UN Security Council were “united” on the need to protect civilians.
The Security Council resolution also authorizes all necessary measures to protect civilians. This too is a hard concept to argue with, but it leaves open the possibility of military operations that are much more aggressive than some of the resolution’s current backers may support. David Cameron’s claim that the resolution does not provide legal authority to overthrow Gadhafi is at the very least disputable. “There could hypothetically be a possibility where attacking the head of the snake is necessary to protect civilians,” says Sir Richard Dalton, a fellow at Chatham House in London and a former British ambassador to Libya.
“There is no sign of his core support crumbling,” Dalton told Maclean’s, referring to Gadhafi and his loyalists. This means Gadhafi may retain the ability to control and direct forces that have thus far been willing to kill large numbers of civilians. If this proves to be the case, what are the allies now enforcing the UN resolution willing to do about it?
Here Canada’s Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon acknowledged that Western military intervention might escalate. He told the CBC that Canada was “open to all options,” including deploying ground troops. If such troops are required to “protect citizens that are being literally murdered by Gadhafi, that’s what the resolution calls for,” he said.
What exactly might such troops do? Would they protect civilians only in areas run by the rebels? What happens when anti-Gadhafi forces seek to expand their territory? What if civilians are being killed in Tripoli? What if battle lines between the two sides stabilize with Gadhafi in control of a chunk of territory in the west? Are the allies prepared to maintain a no-fly zone over Libya for multiple years? “There are so many imponderables, it is impossible to predict the course of events,” says Dalton.
According to J. Scott Carpenter, a Keston family fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a stalemate in which Libya is divided between rebels and Gadhafi loyalists “is not a desired outcome. But unless you have regime change as a specific goal, it’s what you’re stuck with.”
“The Obama administration has backed into this rather than having a clear idea of why it was doing this and what its end goals were,” Carpenter said in an interview with Maclean’s. The result, says Carpenter, is that the coalition must now move quickly to deliver military success in the east so the rebels can consolidate control there, “and then worry about Tripoli.” A divided Libya would be “unstable and temporary,” says Dalton, the former ambassador. “I just can’t see the people of western Libya who have been opposing Tripoli to be content with that.”
Rebels in Libya’s east have also given no indication that they would accept such an outcome. Tripoli, they have repeatedly proclaimed, is their capital. Their revolt will continue. And Carpenter doubts a besieged Gadhafi could keep power. “A rump Gadhafi regime that is isolated and cut off from access to weapons, resources and oil—I just can’t imagine it lasting that long.”
How Gadhafi might fall is yet another unknown. In one scenario, the rebels in the east will simply continue their march west—with allied nations acting as their de facto air force. The international coalition opposing Gadhafi may fragment in such a case. It’s difficult to see how the Arab League would condone this outcome—although the absence in the Arab world of street protests in support of Gadhafi or against intervention in Libya may quiet the league’s dissent.
China and Russia, permanent members of the Security Council that abstained from voting on the resolution, would likely voice louder criticism. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has already likened the UN resolution to “medieval calls for crusades,” bringing up centuries-old clashes between Muslims and Christians. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in a rare break with his former patron, described Putin’s comments as “inexcusable.” The Chinese government, perpetually worried about threats to its own stability, and therefore to those of any established government, is already calling for a ceasefire.
It’s also hard to know what a rebel victory might mean for Libya. “I don’t think we know much about the opposition,” says Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown University’s security studies program and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Are these people Thomas Jefferson, or are they something more nefarious? I’m not sure we know who we’re backing yet.”
The other outcome is a more rapid collapse. This might be brought about by Gadhafi’s surrender. “He won’t listen, but he might be persuadable,” says Dalton. “We can’t assume that Gadhafi would prefer to die in a blaze of glory.” Those close to Gadhafi may also turn on him. “What I’m hoping is, with the unity of the international community, if there are no diplomatic cracks, everyone around Gadhafi will say we have too much to lose and we need to take care of this ourselves. That’s the dream scenario,” says Carpenter.
But there’s no guarantee that Gadhafi’s death or surrender would end the violence. The West knows little about those now fighting for the regime, says Dalton. How many are truly loyal, and how many will drop their weapons given an opportunity? What of foreign mercenaries who will have good reason to fear their fate if they are captured? The fact that government snipers have been shooting in rebel-held cities suggests that not all armed men wish to defect. There is also much speculation about tribal divisions in Libya. These are downplayed by those opposing Gadhafi. But it is conceivable that such divisions may influence the shape of post-Gadhafi Libya.
Persuading Gadhafi’s most trusted loyalists to move against him requires high-placed contacts inside Gadhafi’s regime. The United States may have one in Libya’s foreign minister, Musa Kusa.
Kusa is known among Libyan exiles as the “envoy of death” because of his role in the assassination of Libyan dissidents abroad during the more than 20 years he served as intelligence chief. He has been linked by the CIA to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and to the bombing of UTA flight 772 over Niger the following year.
But Kusa, who was educated in the U.S., co-operated closely with the CIA in its efforts to track down Islamist terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. His meetings with American and British intelligence operatives began the reconciliation process between Gadhafi and the West in 2003, when Gadhafi agreed to end Libya’s nuclear weapons program. Kusa also told the CIA about Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan’s nuclear smuggling network.
British Foreign Minister William Hague has spoken with Kusa at least twice since February. And it is notable that, despite all the blood on his hands, Kusa is not among regime officials targeted by UN sanctions. Carpenter believes this omission is intentional, and that the United States and Britain are sending Kusa a message that he might be able to save himself by sacrificing Gadhafi.
If Gadhafi falls, as the result of a drawn-out civil war or an internal coup, there is still the potentially messy business of what comes next. The UN resolution authorizing force excludes “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” But here too there is wiggle room. While Obama has pledged not to send ground troops, British special forces have already deployed inside Libya. Should the U.S. wish to influence who controls post-Gadhafi Libya, American special forces and paramilitaries may do the same.
And what if whatever force succeeds Gadhafi is unable to control the country? Are members of the coalition willing to tolerate a failed state so close to Europe? Might outside countries find themselves nation building in Libya?
Here Iraq and Afghanistan cast intimidating shadows. They are very different countries. But in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States was unwilling to leave the country in chaos after intervening militarily. Might American feel a similar sense of obligation in Libya? “It is certainly better not to have a failed state in North Africa,” says Daniel Byman of Georgetown University. But Byman doesn’t think the risks that such a failed state might pose to the United States justify the expense and military hardware that would be needed to stabilize it. The United States is already heavily engaged elsewhere in the region.
Stung by the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, America is reluctant to nation build anywhere unless its interests and security are clearly threatened. Somalia is a disaster with an active Islamist insurgency, and the United States has stayed away. It would likely prefer to do the same in Libya. But European nations, facing the prospect of hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving at their borders, may make different calculations. And facing a humanitarian disaster on Europe’s doorstep, it would be difficult for the U.S. not to get involved. No other country has comparable resources.
In short, America and its allies—including Canada—may find themselves involved in Libya for longer than they hope. Comparisons with the most recent Iraq war are tenuous. The U.S. is not eager to invade Tripoli. A better comparison may be Iraq in 1991, when a coalition intervened to change an Arab despot’s behaviour, rather than overthrow him. Saddam Hussein, of course, hung on and ruled a divided country for another 12 years, while American and British planes patrolled its skies. It wasn’t the outcome then-U.S. president George H. W. Bush envisioned when he ordered the first air strikes.
None of this means that the outside world was wrong to go to war in Libya. Non-interference in a civil war is not neutrality. It means implicitly taking the side of the stronger party—who in this case were the soldiers and hired guns of Moammar Gadhafi’s police state busily butchering their way toward rebel strongholds in the east of the country. If anything, the intervention came too late. But wars, once started, are impossible to predict. We can’t know how this one will end.