The emerging pattern of resistance and repression in Libya following the outbreak of protest in the eastern city of Benghazi on 15 February 2011 is very different from that in other parts of the Arab world. In part this reflects the distinctive nature of the country, and of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi which has ruled Libya for forty-two years (see Fred Halliday, "Libya's regime at 40: a state of kleptocracy", 8 September 2009).
The military-political standoff there, and the degree of violence the regime is using (and seems prepared to use) to maintain and restore its control, raises the acute question of what and how much the international community can do to support Libyans’ rights and security.
The question has been forcefully raised in the United States and Britain in the first week of March 2011, where domestic pressures from senior members of the media and the foreign-policy community have combined to press the respective governments to take a firm stand.
The hardening rhetoric has included talk (especially from Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron) of some form of military action against Libya, including the imposition of a “no-fly zone”; though states such as Russia and Turkey instantly discounted this suggestion, and the US defence secretary Robert M Gates - with a reference to “loose talk” that represents a coded rebuke of Cameron - is notably cautious about the logistics of enforcing such a zone.
There may be elements of diplomatic bluff in the efforts of Washington and London in particular to exert pressure on the Gaddafi regime. But words have consequences, and the effect of the rhetoric is also to create expectations (including among Libyans) that action will be taken to resolve the crisis in a positive way. The relatively tough resolution passed on 26 February by the United Nations Security Council, and the International Criminal Court’s declaration on 3 March that it would investigate leading figures of the Gaddafi regime for possible crimes against humanity, contribute to the sense of momentum here.
Yet the international community and its leading states still face broader problems over whether and how to intervene in relation to Libya. They involve calculations over how the complex and fluid conflict inside Libya will unfold, assessments of the capacity and impact of the instruments at their disposal, and issues relating to the legitimacy and inheritance of earlier interventions in the wider region - especially those led by the United States and Britain in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Libyan prospect
The immediate problem is the uncertain course and outcome of the crisis within Libya. The regime appears to be maintaining reasonably firm control of the greater Tripoli district; this contains nearly a third of Libya's population of 6.1 million, including many of those with direct or indirect links to the regime (including key army units).
It is just possible that Muammar Gaddafi and his key allies (including his immediate family) will seek to consolidate this area and refrain from serious attempts to regain control of the whole country - in turn providing a degree of space for some new form of governance to be introduced.
The assaults on Libyan oil-terminal towns such as Brega towards the east on 2-3 March make this option look even less likely, however. Against it, the evident determination and effectiveness of those resisting his rule may succeed in eroding the confidence of some of his forces and create a tipping-point of change towards a different order.
But perhaps a more feasible development (and in many ways the worst-case one) is that the regime deploys extensive force against lightly-armed protesters, inflicting many casualties and much destruction. The regime has greatly superior military resources at its disposal: strike-aircraft, helicopter-gunships, and elite forces (such as the 32nd brigade and paramilitary units attached to the security and intelligence organisations.
The military response
The problem of what the international community should do is highlighted by the rapid switch in David Cameron’s position towards greater denunciation of Gaddafi, which followed stinging criticism of the delays and inefficiency of his government’s response to the crisis (especially in evacuating British civilians from Libya).
The new approach soon proved equally vulnerable, as it coincided with the revelation of weaknesses in national defence - over the Eurofighter project (now costing around £100 million per plane), the announcement of cuts of 11,000 in armed-forces personnel (including soldiers returned from Afghanistan), and a report from a parliamentary foreign-affairs committee critical of the military-political strategy in Afghanistan.
The Barack Obama administration too has been obliged to take account of a wider climate of opinion. This is composed of both belligerent Republicans who see in every foreign-policy crisis a military solution, and policy experts concerned that the US develop a more coherent policy towards the Arab uprisings (and, in the case of Libya, explore ways of implementing the “responsibility to protect” - that is, the obligation of United Nations member-states to act together to protect people’s lives and safety when these are under attack, including from their own government).
The administration’s response has centred on the redeployment of the US navy's sixth fleet. The fleet is headquartered near Naples; its carrier battle-group (headed by the USS Enterprise), recently on anti-piracy patrol off Somalia, transited the Suez canal into the eastern Mediterranean on 2 March. This powerful amphibious-assault capability includes the USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce. The Kearsarge alone is a 41,000-ton Wasp-class ship twice the size of Britain's recently decommissioned aircraft-carrier, HMS Ark Royal; it is normally deployed with 1,850 marines, forty-two CH46 transport helicopters and five AVH-8B jump-jets.
This build-up, together with that of other naval and US aerial forces in the region, is significant. But in itself it does not offer a solution to the interventionist dilemma.
The interventionist dilemma
The combination of events on the ground, public pressure and limited military redeployments (as well as the humanitarian crisis resulting from the large-scale flow of displaced workers of many nationalities inside Libya) is difficult enough for western governments to handle. It would become even more so if a war of attrition develops further in Libya, with greater suffering and increased calls (including by Libyans at the sharp end of conflict) for direct foreign military intervention.
The broad-based appeals for international action from within the region include one from a coalition of over 200 Arab non-government organisations drawn from eight countries, including Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Syria and Saudi Arabia (see Thalif Deen, “Arab Civil Society Calls for No-Fly Zone over Libya”, TerraViva/IPS, 1 March 2011).
Even the proposal of a no-fly zone over the Tripoli area would be a huge operation that would require several carrier battle-groups and aircraft with permission to operate out of neighbouring countries. The effort to stop Libyan strike-aircraft from flying would (as the US defence secretary outlined before a congressional panel on 2 March) require the suppression of air-defence missile systems, associated radar stations and command-and-control centres; after all this, even more difficult would be preventing the use of helicopters (an issue whose omission from the ceasefire agreement that concluded the war over Kuwait in 1991 allowed Saddam Hussein to crush the Shi’a uprising in southern Iraq with extreme violence).
Moreover, there remains a possibility that - even were a no-fly zone to be established and succeed in controlling aircraft movements - the regime might still be able to maintain control via the intensive use of ground forces. In that event, the coalition enforcing the zone would be required either to acknowledge failure or escalate.
The political dilemma
The current scenario plans of leading states must take such concerns into urgent account. But there is a further problem over military intervention (as opposed to other forms), which is at heart political.
Any successful campaign to protect Libyans from the Gaddafi regime by military means would need to be organised by the United States, and be aided by supportive countries such as Britain. The reputation of these states across the region remains in key respects very negative, however, after what is perceived as their history of self-interested and illegitimate intervention (most of which had minimal United Nations approval).
Thus, the imposition of a no-fly zone (and its accompanying attacks) would be portrayed by the Gaddafi regime as part of a campaign to colonise Libya and grab its oil - a narrative that would almost certainly resonate even among many of the Libyans who had called for such a policy (and many other people in the region).
The immediate transformation from an internal war to one of “external aggression” would also have many implications beyond Libya, including in the Arab countries whose citizens have been mobilising in support of freedom and democracy (see "The Arab rebellion: persectives of power", 24 February 2011). It would not take many air-strike targeting disasters of the kind that has become so common in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia for ambivalence at western action to revert to deep hostility.
All this emphasises the position of the United Nations in relation to the debate over intervention, and in particular the doctrine of the international “responsibility to protect” (R2P) developed in the late 1990s following the disastrous failures to prevent genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda (see Gareth Evans, "The responsibility to protect: holding the line", 5 October 2008). The work of putting this doctrine into practice at the highest level in the 2000s then collided with rival geopolitical agendas, especially following 9/11 and the George W Bush administration’s declaration of the “war on terror”.
The UN was from the start central to the discussions over R2P, many of which led to a recommendation that a UN standing force supported by a full logistics capability was essential to put the idea into effective practice. In the event, this proposal has so far come to nothing, leaving a handful of individual states with any kind of rapid-intervention capability: Britain and France (on a small scale), India (in theory, and close to its borders), and the United States (the only state with a global reach).
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had appalling human consequences. But their damage goes far wider, for they have made genuine international cooperation in pursuit of shared human interests - including the “responsibility to protect” - much more difficult. In the absence of a sudden capitulation by Libya’s regime, the costs of this damage may continue to be demonstrated in the coming days and weeks.
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