A different take on foreign intervention in Libya

Following up on Steve's excellent post considering pros and cons of foreign military intervention in Libya, I want to add my two cents. For me, Iraq had made me a die-hard opponent of foreign military intervention of any kind. I like neither the muscular interventionism of the neo-conservatives nor the very similar humanitarian interventionism of liberals. I have a little more respect for the Responsibility to Protect concept currently adopted by the UN, which has surprisingly not been invoked in the Libyan case and at least sets out some communal rules about intervention. Moreover, I am specifically againt US intervention: the US is overstretched as it is, and it does not need the inherit the mess in Libya.

The no-fly zone concept being bandied about, as Steve noted, is both a lot more difficult to pull off than people think and not particularly helpful. The US only has one aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, and it's not clear what the rest of NATO / European powers can bring to the table. It would take time to organize when events on the ground are moving swiftly. And most of the fighting has moved to Kalashnikovs and heavy caliber guns by now rather than aerial bombardment. A related concept would be to prevent more mercenaries arriving in Libya — perhaps a deployment of the French contingent in Chad to the border, or some kind of aerial interception (that would, considering the areas involved, be short of a no-fly zone). (Update: More from Robert Dreyfus on no-fly zones — and also, if Sarkozy wants a no-fly zone, why doesn't he take France's aircraft carriers out of drydock?)

Another concept one hears about is a ground invasion by Egypt to restore order. While I kind of like this concept, the Egyptian military has a country to run at the moment and no appetite for adventurism. Let's be satisfied at least that the Arab League two days ago actually issued a condemnation of what was happening in Libya, a historic first. Arab countries are unfortunately not able to address these kinds of crises, although they should certainly move towards being able to. Even then, I doubt Libyans would be thrilled at having Egyptians in their country, and to Egyptians it might be a very foreign territory considering Libya's tribal make-up.

Another possibility is a decapitation mission against the Libyan leadership, particularly Muammar Qadhafi. I think that this mission with clearly defined and limited aims is the best choice if intervention of any kind is chosen. The only problem is that it might deprive Libyans of the pleasure of doing it themselves (although perhaps those defector pilots could be put to good use). It would obviously rely either an aerial bombing mission (hard to verify success) or a special forces operation (difficult to pull off without good intelligence).  

Finally, we should consider the possibility of a prolonged civil war in Libya, with or without the Qadhafis, and no foreign intervention. Someone will be selling weapons to one side or the other. Perhaps some are even considering arming one side, at least so they can defend themselves. I doubt many people want more weapons in Libya, but this is the way things are likely to head if there is no decisive victory by one side or the other. And the best way to avoid that would be to start the political contacts between former Qadhafi regime members, opposition figures and tribal leaders as soon as possible. And that's something that Egypt and Tunisia, with their familiarity with this little-known country, might be in the best position to offer.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.