European Student Think Tank

Author: Daan Wijnants (Blogger European Student Think Tank)

The western world has begun its third military intervention in a Muslim country since the attacks on September 11th. After previous conflicts, what lessons have been learned? What is the most desirable outcome in the Libyan conflict? And what can be said about the role of the international coalition?

There is no doubt that Muammar al-Gadaffi is a brutal dictator, given the way he has made war against his own people, bombing them with military planes and heavy artillery. The only thing a true dictator fears is losing his power, thus from the start of his regime on the first of September 1969 he has heavily subsidized prices of gasoline and diesel fuel to levels of 10 cents per liter in the hope of keeping his people happy and thankful of his leadership. But things have now changed and Gadaffi’s worst fears may well come true now that his people have rebelled against him.

After the revolution in Tunisia, other Arab nations followed suit. These rebellions turned out to be a peaceful transition towards an as yet uncertain future, but even the slightest glimmer of hope is worth striving for. The Libyan revolution, however, turned out to be a display of military power against the civilian population. After at first being successful in their attempts to conquer Libyan cities, and therefore strongly opposing any western military intervention, the army of Gadaffi retaliated, causing the opposition to retreat and subsequently asking the West for help. Finally, a no-fly zone was created to prevent the bombing by Gadaffi of his own people.

No-fly zone
There have been a number of no-fly zones in the course of history. One example is the Iraqi no-fly zone, spanning the northern and southern part of the country, from 1991 to 2003. This no-fly zone never resulted in its implicit goal of removing Saddam Hussein from office. Another example is the 1999 Kosovo intervention. This military intervention on humanitarian grounds, led by NATO, consisted of bombing operations from the air. Since all the leaders of NATO, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair excepted, declared that a ground war was not an option, this tempted Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic to endure the bombing. This is precisely what Gadaffi is doing in Libya now.

Ground war
UN Security Council resolution 1973 does not ultimately oppose a ground war, it does however grant no authorization to a foreign ‘occupation force’. It was probably the hope and expectation of the coalition that Gadaffi would disappear from office after being confronted with overwhelming military power and an advancing opposition. This will most likely prove to be an illusion. The wars in Iraq, in Vietnam and the Kosovo war have thought us that a war cannot solely be won from the sky. The United States have begun to realize this. So, when US General Ham, leader of the coalition until NATO took over, he announced that the US are now considering the usage of ground troops in Libya. I believe that a ground war will prove to be inevitable, since Gadaffi will not be persuaded to leave by bombing alone. He has already begun to place military installations in densely populated areas, where the NATO coalition is less likely to bombard. It seems that a swift ground operation aimed at the purpose of removing Gadaffi from office will be needed.

One of the reasons Gadaffi is unlikely to leave voluntarily or to go into exile, is that the International Criminal Court(ICC) has ordered for him to be prosecuted. Even though it’s a morally just decision, this has limited the diplomatic options of persuading him to abdicate, since every nation that has recognized the ICC will be obliged to turn Gadaffi over to the court. It would be wise to reconsider this decision once the conflict is over.

Arming the opposition
Another matter is the question of arming the Libyan opposition. The rebels themselves have asked the west repeatedly for weapons and there have been sporadic reports about covert weapons distribution by the CIA. A large part of the nations that form the coalition have publicly announced that they will not arm the rebels. This seems to be the just course of action. It is doubtful that the UN resolution authorizes arms distribution, but it is also undesirable. The 1979-1989 Afghan War involving the Soviet Union, in which the US supplied arms to the rebel Mujahideen, has shown that it is never certain that the arms the West supplied will not be used by hostile factions in a later period.

Humanitarian interventions
One of the most fundamental questions that the West has to ask itself is what it seeks to achieve in the Libyan conflict. As Winston Churchill said: “winning the war is easy, ending the war is hard”. Even though the US have stated clearly that Gadaffi must leave, the determination of the European part of the coalition and the willingness to use force to achieve this goal are not yet completely clear. A clear policy is needed to ensure that the West does not become entangled in every conflict.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has stated four principles regarding humanitarian intervention: the principle being defended (i.e. no bombing of civilian population) must be universally applicable, the actions must be sustainable by public opinion, the international community must be involved and the historical context of the conflict must be taken into account. In the Libyan conflict these four principles are fulfilled and therefore this intervention can be considered as just. The US and Europe can however not play the role of world policeman, and neither should they desire to do so. The removal of Gadaffi and a peaceful transition towards a democratic government should be the desired outcome and the hope of the Libyan people.

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