Libya: the view from where you are

The international war over Libya began on the late evening of 19 March 2011. Its meaning depends on the angle of vision - and what happens next.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
21 March 2011

The Libya war has started with full sanction from the United Nations Security Council. This makes it very different from the Iraq war that was launched exactly eight years before in 2003. This time, the coalition that has been put together involves Arab League participants; it expects that the sudden and extensive military action it is undertaking will protect civilians, and might even bring an early end to the Muammar Gaddafi regime.

There may be some unease in the United States at the risk of being drawn into another conflict in the middle east. Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy are, however, quite convinced of the need to press ahead. Indeed the French appear to have escalated the operation from the start; even before United States and British forces began to attack Gaddafi’s air-defence facilities, the targets of French attacks included Gaddafi's ground forces close to the rebel-held city of Benghazi.

The UN authorisation means that the European forces appear to be on firm ground. The anti-regime forces in Benghazi actions have greatly welcomed their actions, and there is a fair measure of domestic support in the two countries. If the Gaddafi regime were to fall in a matter of days, there will be confidence too in the enhanced influence of the UN.

The perspective from well beyond Europe is rather different (including from a conference on regional security in Dubai, where this column is being written). The overall sense can be summarised as: "there they go again".

If there is a degree of cynicism here, it has much evidence to draw on. The French may be bombing Libya, but in late February 2011 their technicians were still upgrading the Libyan air-force’s Mirage F1 fighters. Italy may provide bases for the air assault, yet one of its leading defence companies has been under recent contract to the Libyan army.

More generally, France’s colonial control is recalled with something short of affection in north Africa and the middle east, while Britain still suffers from its association with George W Bush and the Iraq war. And while both countries may see Libya as a morally appropriate case for intervention, they seem strangely silent over the violent repression in Bahrain (backed by their other regional allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates); just as they said so little about Gaza during Israel’s assault of 2008-09.

In this respect, the news that the head of the Arab League is expressing concern at the suddenness and intensity of the air-strikes – though hardly a surprise, given how the west fights its wars - may be a signal of what is to come.

In short, if this UN-mandated action does succeed, civilians are protected and the Gaddafi regime is made impotent or even falls, then the cynicism and critical thoughts will be forgotten. If not, and Libya turns into yet another lengthy and difficult war, then they - and the bitter memories, of historical and more recent events - will return to the fore.


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