Charles Reed, Foreign Policy adviser to the Church of England raises some important issues and makes the following comments about Operation Odyssey in Libya
Two weeks on from the start of Operation Odyssey we still lack clarity as to what might happen next should Gaddafi be defeated, overthrown or accidentally killed by a stray tomahawk missile. What might success look like? Is the objectives regime change or the protection of civilians? What is the exit strategy? Do we have a Plan B should the use of military force not protect civilians? What is the political strategy should the use of force contribute to a stalemate on the ground?
These questions have for the most part been sidestepped by the Government. When Ministers have tried to answer these questions, their responses have only served to reveal the divisions within Government and between it and other coalition partners. In responding to the humanitarian situation on the ground the Government has overlooked other strategic considerations.
Was the resort to military force unnecessary and premature? Politics, J.K.Galbraith once reasoned, “consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable”. The use of military force is always unpalatable and highlights the brokenness of human relations, but on some occasions it can prove the lesser of two evils.
The speed with which the Security Council moved from passing a resolution referring Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court to securing Resolution 1973 authorising the use of military force underlines there was broad international consensus that just cause existed.
The high levels of abstention resulting in UNSCR 1973 shows that considerable doubt existed that the use of military force was necessarily the right instrument to use at that particular moment.
The decision to use military force certainly closed of other avenues. There is nothing to be gained now by speculating on whether alternative political options should have been explored further.
Whatever people think about the rights and wrongs of Operation Odyssey, UNSCR 1973 is a remarkable diplomatic achievement that no one predicted. It gives hope that after the rancour and division of the Iraq War, it is still possible to talk of an international community.
The consensus underpinning 1973 remains fragile and needs to be nurtured. This consensus needs to be sustained to provide continued political legitimacy for this military operation. It also needs investment to provide a more secure and lasting foundation for subsequent interventions in other parts of our troubled world should the need arse in the future.
UNSCR 1973 shows that the international community understands it has a responsibility to protect, but governments must also act responsibility when implementing its provisions.
Governments must only use that force which is necessary to uphold the relevant provisions of UNSCR 1973. This means that unless a convincing case can be made otherwise, the use of military force should not be used to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi or to assist the rebels in their political objectives.
Time and again throughout this crisis the Government has fallen back on the line that Britain can’t stand idly by whilst civilians are massacred. The Chancellor told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on 20 March: “What this is all about is creating the space for the Libyan people to make their own decisions about their future and not be under the vicious military assault from their own government.”
The question of where command and control responsibilities lie for Operation Odyssey has now been resolved in NATO’s favour. But, it still remains uncertain how the military provision of UNSCR 1973 will be implemented with President Obama taking a back seat.
A decade ago the US accounted for 50% of defence spending of all NATO countries. That share is now closer to 75%. Libya is 35 times larger than Bosnia, where NATO implemented a no-fly zone in the 1990s using around 240 aircraft from a dozen countries.
Last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review assumed it unlikely that Britain would use military force outside of an US led coalition. This working assumption now looks in question. It raises the matter of whether the conclusions of the SDSR now need to be revisited.
Even if Gaddafi goes, it is fanciful to think that we can just walk a way. Libya, one of the region’s most closed societies, is very different from its North African neighbours such as Egypt, with no established opposition groups, civil society groups or strong state institutions after 41 years of Gaddafi’s rule. When the regime’s hold on the east was broken, there was no clear leadership in the so-called liberated areas.
There is no guarantee that what comes after Gaddafi will be any better. But, once we launched an armed intervention in Libya, we accepted long-term responsibility for the country that might yet prove hard to fulfil. Governments’ pre-occupation with the immediacy of current operations means that little thought has been given to this consideration or to preparing their publics for a long-term engagement with Libya and what it might eventually cost.
Each one of Charles Reed’s points suggest that once again Britain and its Western allies are being drawn into a situation where the practical constraints are likely to lead down most uncertain paths. Certainly there would be few who would question the ideal of preventing civilian casualties. Unfortunately this requires cooperation on the part of the protagonists. If for example Gaddafi’s troops are sporting enough to place their tanks away from civilian areas before they begin shelling, to place their snipers in clearly marked military areas and to insist that civilians leave their military bases to avoid civilian casualties then no doubt they might be brought to heel.
Unfortunately with snipers installed in civilian buildings, civilians placed as human shields in large numbers in key areas to be defended and tanks and artillery moving into civilian areas the theoretical ideal of protecting civilians is much harder to implement in practice. Another most unfortunate reality is that civilians loyal to Gaddafi are being armed for his defence while others are in effect are being press-ganged into the fighting.
The fiction of NATO being an independent force acting in the interests of peace on behalf of the member Nations is less plausible when we remember that the main funding and support for that organisation is very much the US responsibility.
A further complication is that a proportion of the population are both civilian and Gaddafi loyalists. Now the rebellion has well and truly started it is hard to perceive a situation where both the loyalists and the rebels can have their concerns simultaneously addressed. If for example the NATO intervention neutralises Gaddafi’s forces so that they no longer represent a threat to the civilian population it is hard to separate this from a consequent rebel victory with the expected transfer of power and resources. Whether or not this would mean the Pro Gaddafi forces still have their democratic rights and safety guaranteed appears problematic at best.