Where does NATO, Cameron, and the West stand after the Libyan intervention?

Cameron, Sarkozy, Clinton and Liberal Interventionism have been vindicated. Bob Gates and Merkel have been diminished.

Libyans celebrate the routing of Gaddafi

Even as fighting still rages around Colonel Gadaffi’s compound, the strategic analysis of how the NATO-backed Libyan rebels is already underway. An initial survey of the key players’ roles is revealing in assessing the strengths and weakness of the Libyan intervention.


‘Give me lucky generals’ Napoleon said. The Libyan intervention certainly proved the North Atlantic alliance’s good fortune. Despite the considerable constraints of US and UK military overstretch, UNSCR 1973’s no-ground troops proviso, and deadly friendly fire incidents that threatened the alliance’s will and cohesion, NATO successfully achieved its goal.

NATO airpower protected the rebels, interdicted Gadaffi’s forces  and bought time for the popular uprising to escalate to the point of success. As the pre-eminent war-theorist Carl von Clausewitz warned, conducting a limited war is so difficult that often “the attack comes to a standstill before the object is gained.” Thus NATO deserves credit for executing operations under difficult conditions, as well as for its luck.

David Cameron and the British Government

Cameron executed the Blair-Kosovo playbook perfectly: private pressure on the Americans, a firm line within NATO and patience with a little French grandstanding so as to enjoy the military and political benefits of French heavy-lifting.

However, the government’s proposed defence cuts are of deep concern to those who approve of the Libyan action and now fear for Britain’s ability to play a leading role in the humanitarian interventions of the future.

The Obama Administration

Libya is a stain on the judgment of former Defence Secretary Robert Gates who argued against the intervention within the National Security Council. In contrast, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice and NSC members Samatha Power and Gayle Smith deserve great credit for winning the President round and staying the course on the intervention.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel

French President Nicolas Sarkozy emerges with renewed status on both the world stage and in French domestic politics after heeding the personal entreaties of philospher Bernard-Henri Lévy, and putting France at the front of the intervention.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Merkel’s reputation for doing the wrong thing slowly is deepened. Although Germany did not veto NATO action in Libya her initial attempt to block the No Fly Zone is now cast in an even poorer light.

Libyan rebel groups

Setbacks such as the death of rebel commander Abdel Fattah the tragic series of friendly fire incidents and the constant shifting nature of desert warfare could well have seen the rebels routed.

But both Gadaffi and critics of the intervention underestimated their staying power, their levels of internal organisation and their operational effectiveness.

These factors combined in Operation Mermaid Dawn the pre-planned, joint external push on Tripoli and internal civil uprising within the city that combined to oust the regime from power. The long-term lessons for this kind of low-tech, networked insurgency will be substantial.


As Bernard-Henri Levy told BBC Radio 4’s World at One:

“The game is over for Bashar Assad. The world has changed. The rules of the game have changed.”

Mssr Levy also stated that he thought regime change within Syria would be achieved without outside military action echoing the argument of Left Foot Forward writer Frank Spring earlier this month that the Syrian dictator would be toppled by his own people supported by rebel Syrian troops .


Western leaders are acutely aware of the need for the Libyan post-conflict environment to be shaped by Libyans. It is important however to remember that Libya will need foreign assistance both technical and financial in the months to come. 

Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander summarised what is required on The World at One when he said that what was needed was:

“Stability and security…to ensure violence in post-Gadaffi Libya was controlled…provide the basics of life for the people of Libya… things like ensuring young men can lay down their arms and earn a livelihood”

and that the political element is handled carefully:

“because being able to take a city is not the same as being able to run one.”

Liberal interventionism

The Libyan intervention has strengthened the proponents of the UN’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine. As in Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone, humanitarian interventionism has proved successful.

As in those cases, and unlike in Iraq, the combination of a clear and immediate threat to the civilian populace, regional support for a multi-national intervention and a militarily practicable mission allowed interventionists to trade speed of escalation for scale of escalation – a slower, more secure escalation – and thus achieve victory.

As such, the spectre of Iraq for liberal interventionists may not been exorcised but is no longer paralysing.

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  • Anon E Mouse

    Can’t someone just phone Peter Mandelson please.

    He’s big buddies with the Gadaffi family and probably knows where they all are…

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  • Mr. Sensible

    I think the intervention in Libya was the right thing to do, but the point about the defense cuts is a perfectly valid one. The SDSR should be reopened.

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  • Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – Er would that be the review the last Labour government put off for 13 years?

    Pot’s and kettles springs to mind…

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  • Paul

    Total bollocks the truth will come out one day and it will be that there were troops on the ground and cameron sarkozy and obama are lists and war criminals.

  • Selohesra

    I see the Lybian debt is rated even worse than Greece – it is now ‘Tripple E’

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  • BenDalrymple

    So the restriction to protecting (some) civilians was always a fraud – remember the WMD’s of Iraq? they were certainly a triumph for Progressive aggression – and the NTC’s thuggish assaults on Libyans and immigrants with black skins ( a hate campaign against them started as ‘mercenaries’ soon after Feb 17 ). As for democracy, how can Article 1 part 1 of the NTC Constitution of Libya protect free speech, the right to elect legislators who will be faithful to theier election promises when it reads: “Islam is the Religion of the State, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).” As for internal social harmony, the NTC spokesman debating John Bolton took the same line as the Gaddafi regime – all Libyans are Arabs and the same group of Arabs at that, obliterating the Berber and the Tuareg people at a stroke of the pen. The Progressive Cameron-worshippers are going to have a lot of explaining to do -even the ICG report predicted such mayhem and repression. Gates was plainly right.

  • BenDalrymple

    Lost connection just as I was about to point out that the last thing the Libyan people need is the horde of ‘trainers’ and ‘civil society support groups’ to do soft power on the Libyan people and ensure that they do their Western masters’ bidding. No doubt many Progressives will be queueing up to salve their consciences and buff up their CVs ow it is safer than the jousts of the likes of Lord Byron and the International Brigades in Spain (Mr Bigham,’s role model (sorry, excuse) for exploiting the British military in these modern crusades. Colin Powell’s doctrine “you broke it – you bought it” is a brazen incentive to vainglorious aggression across the world a la Blair pursuant to imposing slavery on the people’s such Progressives have “bought”. In the meantime, why not check out Dennis Kucinich’s suggestion that those NATO officials who bombed hospitals, TV stations, civilian families and facilities face justice from the dock… after all, they have a right to defend themselves in the most appropriate place for suspected war criminals…. Or do we have the umpteenth example of DOUBLE STANDARDS?

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