Thursday, July 7, 2011
Don't Give Up On Libya
West must increase the military pressure, buttress the rebels, and accept that the campaign may last several more months
The voices of those who prophesy doom in Libya are becoming ever louder. The fracas, they say, should never have concerned the West, which has no great interest in the place. The Americans want less and less to do with it. US President Barack Obama, scolded by many in Congress for getting involved in the first place, is hiding in Nato's back seat.
Generals in Britain and France, who are shouldering much of Nato's campaign burden, are complaining about the stress and strain on their forces in trying to bring down Muammar Gaddafi.
There is no timetable and no exit plan, say the pessimists. The rebels are a shoddy lot who are likely, if they get into power, to be no nicer than what went before. Moreover, it is all about tribes, not democracy, and Gaddafi plainly has a lot of them on his side.
To cap it all, Nato, in its frustration at failing to remove the regime in a trice, is killing civilians — the very crime it was meant, under UN Security Council Resolution 1973, to prevent. In short, it is a dreadful mess, with no obvious way out.
Some of what they say is right. The Americans are indeed losing the will to fight. But the picture they present of what's going on in Libya is distorted. There is no stalemate: the campaign is heading steadily in the right direction.
Gaddafi's territorial writ is shrinking. His oil is running out. Defections from his camp are mounting. His days in power, perhaps also on this earth, are numbered.
The leading rebels, though inevitably a mixed bunch, make incomparably more sense than the unhinged colonel. They do not represent only the east.
Like-minded people in Tripoli are keen to join hands with them. Tribal factors count but do not cancel out a general thirst for freedom as well as unity. And Nato has rightly taken care to avoid civilian targets, though some tragic mistakes have inevitably been made.
The big hope is that the regime in Tripoli will fizzle from within rather than be swept away by an advancing rebel army.
Mindful of American mistakes in Iraq, the rebels have sensibly stated that civil servants and members of the army and police, bar those who are stained with blood, will be welcome to serve under a new order. They have called for a free press, freedom of association, a plurality of parties and open elections.
If Gaddafi were unconditionally to accept the need for all of this, it might be worth negotiating with him. But no such possibility seems conceivable at present. Last week, the International Criminal Court at The Hague issued a warrant for his arrest.
It will be for the Libyans to plot their own future. But in the immediate post-Gaddafi phase, outside help will be vital.
The United Nations is pondering the rapid creation of a ceasefire-monitoring team, with Turks, Jordanians and perhaps some of the beefier Africans to the fore; a bigger force of peacekeepers may be necessary later but would take time to create. A new order will most urgently need robust policing rather than armed force.
The West does indeed have a stake in the outcome in this fight: if Gaddafi can be replaced by a decent regime, the forces of modernity and reform across the Arab world will get a huge fillip, which in turn will benefit the West in a host of economic and political ways. And if he stays put, the tyrants will take succour.
So the West must hold its nerve, increase the military pressure, buttress the rebels, and accept that the campaign may last several more months.
It could end a lot sooner. Whenever it does, the world must be ready for the next phase.
This commentary was published in The Economist on 07/07/2011