Britain, Italy and the US are talking up possible military action against Muammar Gaddafi
Criticised for reacting too slowly to the Libyan crisis, Britain and its allies now risk a dangerous, ill-thought out over-reaction in raising the prospect of direct western military intervention. If any lesson has been learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that while it is very easy to get into a war in the Middle East, it is difficult to control events once engaged, and harder still to find a way out.
David Cameron’s order to British military chiefs to prepare plans for a no-fly zone over Libya, to prevent Colonel Gaddafi’s forces attacking opposition groups, may be a calculated attempt to increase the pressure on the Libyan leader to step down. But Cameron’s proposal, delivered in the Commons, potentially goes beyond the sort of protective air patrols Britain and France conducted over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1990s.
“We do not in any way rule out the use of military assets,” Cameron said. On the face of it, this is a very bold statement.
It’s legitimate to ask how far the prime minister is prepared to go in backing up his belief that it would be “intolerable” to allow Gaddafi to use military force against his citizenry. Governments all over the world do exactly that with depressing frequency, whether in Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Burma, Iran or China. Britain has somehow learned to live with that – without threatening to send in the Marines.
Britain is not alone in this sudden military escalation. Italy, the former colonial power, jumped on to the accelerating bandwagon in the past 24 hours. Foreign minister Franco Frattini said his country may let its military bases in the Mediterranean be used as they are closest to Libya.
More ominously, given its capabilities, the US is also talking up military possibilities. “The no-fly zone is an option we are actively considering. I discussed it today with allies and partners. All options are on the table,” said Hillary Clinton in Geneva. Washington has deployed naval and air units off Libya and more are on their way. It can be assumed these are not intended to airlift stranded oil workers. A Pentagon spokesman said the idea was to ensure “flexibility” as Barack Obama considers various contingency plans.
Clinton could not have been clearer about America’s objective: Gaddafi must quit, unconditionally and immediately, she said. Thus in the space of a week the Obama administration has gone from fretful silence, for fear of hostage-taking, to a public insistence on regime change backed by sabre-rattling. Even Saddam Hussein was given a way out, right up until the eve of the March 2003 invasion. Not so Gaddafi. Hence talk of allowing him to go into exile. It seems only the Libyan’s head will now satisfy Washington and London.
This increasingly aggressive stance raises a number of questions. Are the US and Britain primarily concerned to protect Libyans from their cornered leader, or are they more concerned about western investment and securing Libya’s oilfields – the dominant consideration behind the last decade’s appeasement of Gaddafi? And is the situation on the ground yet so dire as to justify direct intervention at the risk of alienating Arab and Muslim opinion? The UN has achieved consensus on Libya so far, with Russia and China on board. The weekend security council resolution excluded the use of armed forces and did not mention a no-fly zone. That unanimity would be shattered by unilateral military action.
And what will Cameron and Obama do if, as in Iraq, their airmen are killed or shot down and taken hostage? Will they escalate further? Both the US and Britain might be well advised to take a deep breath, step back a little, and think hard about what they may be getting into.