By Max Hastings
This commentary was published in the Financial Times on 18/05/2011
- International Criminal Court prosecutor had requested arrest warrants for Gaddafi.
But more decisions on Libya will soon be required. A 60-day review of the Nato mandate is due on May 31 and a 90-day review on June 30.
Planning is hampered by poor intelligence. Uncertainty persists about whether Libya's inland tribes are eagerly awaiting liberation from Gaddafi, or whether they retain a real loyalty to their erratic leader.
Are the western nations bombing Libya in the cause of its national freedom, or merely in support of the weaker faction in a civil war — the coastal tribes of Cyrenaica? We do not know.
There are tensions between the US and European leaders. The Americans have never acknowledged a strategic interest in Libya's future anything like as strong as that in Yemen, Syria and, of course, Pakistan and Iran. They were reluctant to open a new front when committed elsewhere, and remain nervous of protracted engagement.
Washington's view is that if the Europeans wish to save the Libyans from their own ruler, a continent with an economy as large as that of the US should be able to pursue that objective with its own armed forces. The fact that only two of the large Nato European nations' aircraft are engaged confirms every US prejudice about Europe's military debility.
While Norwegian and Danish aircraft are manfully achieving a higher hits-per-sortie ratio than the British and French, and the Belgians are also bombing, the Germans, Italians and Spanish are nowhere to be seen.
Under heavy pressure from British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Americans are still providing resources to enforce the no-fly zone. But there is absolutely no appetite in Washington for extending this commitment.
Military chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic acknowledged a moral imperative to act to halt the slaughter of innocents in Benghazi. But they remain baffled about why US President Barack Obama, Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy chose to go much further, and declare an unequivocal commitment to regime-change.
As military attrition and economic pressure weaken Gaddafi's grip, there will be scope for a political deal. But air power alone is unlikely to enforce a decisive rebel victory. The threat or deployment of ground forces is an essential element of campaigns of this kind, yet there are neither the soldiers nor the political will for this.
I still believe Gaddafi will fall. My worry is Nato's implicit acceptance of responsibility for what follows. Senior officers think at least a foreign stabilisation force will be indispensable to avert anarchy.
A veteran British statesman who supported intervention argues that Cameron should have thrown himself into energetic personal diplomacy to strengthen international backing.
British and French ministers take a more sanguine view than do the Americans and some soldiers. They emphasise a dominant reality: the swift commitment of aircraft prevented a slaughter of innocent people.
The West is thus on the right side of history in the Arab Spring. If Libya emerges more or less happily from this struggle, Cameron and Sarkozy will deserve their laurels. Sceptics such as myself will have to recant. Meanwhile, Nato governments must review options. The most likely course is that bombing will continue for as long as it takes.
A commitment of ground troops remains unlikely, though there might be a UN stabilisation force if or when Gaddafi goes. For Nato to arm the rebels would precipitate difficulties at the UN. The most attractive option diplomatically would be for Arab states to back the rebels. Most even of those who opposed the Libyan entanglement would agree we must see this through to an acceptable conclusion.
The credibility of the West is now engaged here. The rebels cannot be abandoned to Tripoli's revenge. This looks like a long story. Even if Gaddafi falls, for the West the hazards seem daunting.