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Thursday, June 23, 2011
Libya: Will Doubts Destroy The Coalition?
Worried by mission creep and spiralling costs, the Nato-led coalition is suffering a new round of war wobbles over Libya
By Chris Doyle
The secretary-general of the Arab League Amr Moussa (left), pictured with Muammar Gaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2010. Photograph: Reuters
Well into month four of military operations in Libya, and we have a new round of jitters over Operation Unified Protector. War wobbles – and it is a war – are a fact of life, not least in multinational coalitions. Some leaders have to pose as tough and uncompromising, others feel they have to show huge concern about civilian casualties, rising costs, mission creep and lack of speedy success.
The challenge is assessing which ones are just playing to a domestic audience and which ones are really genuine. Often enough, those who sound the most cautious are in private the most gung-ho and vice-versa.
The latest round was sparked as a result of Libyan civilian casualties in a Nato attack on 9 June, apparently due to a weapons failure. Many are surprised that there have not been more tragic scenes such as this. The Gaddafi regime, feigning concern over civilian killings, has tried to milk this to the full.
The first doubter is the suave secretary-general of the Arab League and would-be president of Egypt, Amr Moussa. He has had his second bout of the jitters (his first one coming less than 24 hours after the start of military operations in March). This week, in an interview with the Guardian, Moussa stated: "When I see children being killed, I must have misgivings. That's why I warned about the risk of civilian casualties." He went further: "You can't have a decisive ending. Now is the time to do whatever we can to reach a political solution." Just how this is to happen he did not make clear, nor does he appear to have been trying to broker a deal himself.
Arabs and Egyptians that I have spoken to believe Moussa's primary motives are electoral – the political posturing of an ambitious man. As a leading candidate in the Egyptian presidential elections, he has to be acutely aware of the political temperature in his own country. But Moussa was also a key enabler of the Nato operation in Libya. It was he, after all, who helped procure the Arab League decision to call for a no-fly zone, the precursor to UN security council resolution 1973. This Arab League position swayed doubters at the UN including – crucially – Russia and China. Since then, Arab states actually have remained largely supportive, save Algeria and Syria.
Joining Moussa is the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, who called for an "immediate humanitarian suspension of hostilities". This echoed earlier calls by some international aid agencies. Meanwhile, the diminished position of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has made him dependent on coalition partners, not least the Northern League, which opposed the Nato action for fear of a huge wave of North African immigrants. Italy's role is not peripheral – it is the former colonial power in Libya but also host of the key Nato centre of operations.
The other wobbler is the US Congress. Here it is clear that Barack Obama has made little effort to win Congress over and Republicans are trying to embarrass the president for electoral reasons. A senior Libyan opposition source told me that he remained very confident that Obama's support would hold, that Moussa was probably far more in favour of finishing Gaddafi off than he currently sounds and that the Italians would not drop out.
Britain and France remain in the "fight to the bitter end" camp, even though domestically there is lukewarm support for this. The issue here is not so much civilian casualties but spiralling costs. Pressure is intensifying to deliver a swift decisive result.
But while there are doubters, the National Transitional Council in Benghazi has been making some key diplomatic gains. A total of 18 states have now recognised it, including France, Italy and Germany, with many others doing so on an informal level. Crucially, the Chinese government has described the NTC as an "important dialogue partner".
There is fallout from others, not so much over mission creep as what some are referring to as "mission leap". Far from the original no-fly zone that the Arab League called for, it then became a protection operation, but is now all too clearly a regime-change operation. The original wording of resolution 1973 was just about loose enough for the warmongers to interpret it in such a way, though it was clear that most of those voting for it did not understand this, not least Russia and China. Their annoyance has led to a much tougher stance against a resolution on Syria.
But what undermines operations in Libya most is the blurring of political goals. If the political objective is to get rid of Gaddafi, then the military should be allowed do it. Bombing him from on high is risky, endangers civilians, is unlikely to succeed and in the end is far more costly. Some argue that regime change may require forces on the ground to finish the job, but neither Libyans nor Nato allies are at all prepared for that as it stands.
Taking stock at this stage is right. The situation in Libya is not a stalemate, as some suggest, but opposition advances are slow and accomplished at huge cost. Benghazi and Misrata have been largely liberated, as have other areas. Opposition forces are creeping towards Tripoli and Sirte, where they expect Gaddafi's support to implode.
But the constituency that really matters are Libyans themselves. The chasm between Gaddafi and his opponents is so huge it is hard to conceive of a political deal that would satisfy both. Nobody took Saif al-Islam's offer of elections seriously, not least because it did not come from the lips of his father. Critics of Nato operations among Gaddafi opponents are legion, but usually they complain that Nato is not doing enough. They want arms, they want more training, more bombing and increasingly more funding.
There still is a sense of resolute determination that eventually they will get their man and have a free Libya. If so, will this come soon enough for their Nato protectors and other allies?
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 23/06/2011