Libya: Peace through war?

It will not take long for the coalition’s Libyan operation to be seen across the Middle East as hypocritical and self-serving, and resisted as such, says George Irvin.

The question mark in the title is not there for Orwellian irony, but simply to express one’s own genuine confusion about this contradictory war, writes George Irvin, after all, had Gaddafi’s army had a free hand in Benghazi, who doubts that it would have slaughtered thousands?

Does anybody think this ‘leader’ is anything other than a rogue; in Robert Fisk’s words:

“Completely bonkers, flaky, a crackpot on the level of Ahmadinejad of Iran and Lieberman of Israel…”

Nevertheless, however crackpot and dangerous Gaddafi may be, there are some compelling reasons for opposing this war – or at least for treating the ‘coalition’s’ stated aims with the utmost scepticism.

First, there is the sheer hypocrisy of the US, Britain and France (plus a few hangers-on) speaking of ‘protecting civilians’ – in the past two decades, hundreds of thousands and possibly a million civilians have died as a result of the imposition of no-fly zones and/or outright invasion to secure western interests, Iraq and Afghanistan being the most obvious examples.

At the moment, civilians are dying daily in Yemen and Bahrain, in the latter using military equipment from the Saudi monarchy supplied by the coalition. That anybody in the Commons could publicly back the war without pointing out this contradiction is itself an assault on the humanitarian values we purport to uphold.

Next are the practical arguments, already amply covered in the press. What exactly is the aim of this operation? Clearly it cannot be merely to ‘protect civilians’ since, as long as Gaddafi remains in power, opposition civilians will remain at risk. So either the country must be permanently divided – which nobody either in Libya or the West wants – or else Gaddafi must be taken out.

Despite repeated denials, that was obviously the US intent in hitting his bunker; but it is doubtful that the Libyan leader, having gathered a human shield to protect it, was anywhere near when the Americans struck. Given the size of the country, even the most sophisticated aerial intelligence cannot be sure of his whereabouts. Large numbers of ‘boots of the ground’ are necessary for this work.

As much as the coalition would like to see it happen, it seems unlikely that the Libyan opposition can quickly capture Tripoli to achieve this end given that, even in the wake of the French air strike, they have been unable to push loyalist forces fully out of nearby Adjabiya. With the exception of some defecting units of Gaddafi’s army, the opposition has little military training.

In sum, one can expect the dirty work to be done by a battalion or two of coalition ‘special forces’ operating under a suitable PR guise.

Let us assume for convenience that Gaddafi is killed quickly – which would be advantageous for all concerned. As Patrick Cockburn argues, what then? In the absence of a politically coherent opposition with a wide popular base, which in a largely tribal country is difficult to form even under the most favourable conditions, the coalition will end up occupying Libya to ‘maintain stability’, just as has been the case in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Don’t expect the coalition to allow the country to spiral downwards into Somali-style anarchy, not where oil and a strategic geographical position are at stake.

To paraphrase Cockburn, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Robert Fisk and other journalists who know the region, it will not take long for the coalition’s Libyan operation to be seen across the Middle East as hypocritical and self-serving, and resisted as such.

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