A coalition of mostly Western nations, including Canada, has entered a war with loosely defined objectives and an uncertain end.
Following much-delayed approval from the United Nations Security Council for a no-ﬂy zone and the use of “all necessary measures” short of occupation to protect civilians, France, Britain and the United States launched a barrage of air and cruise missile strikes against Libyan air defences, armour and command centres last weekend. Canadian CF-18 fighters flew their first sorties over Libya Monday. Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s expansive Bab al-Aziziya complex in Tripoli was attacked Sunday night—suggesting, despite conflicting statements from nations fighting in Libya, that Gadhafi himself is a target.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs Monday that the Security Council resolution “does not provide legal authority for action to bring about Gadhafi’s removal from power by military means.” Britain’s chief of defence staff, Gen. David Richards, said targeting Gadhafi was “not allowed under the UN resolution.” But Defence Secretary Liam Fox said striking at the Libyan leader was “potentially a possibility.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, who for weeks appeared reluctant to involve American forces in the Libyan war, said the mission’s goals centred on protecting civilians rather than regime change. Asked if these goals might be achieved with Gadhafi still in power, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said, “That’s certainly potentially one outcome.” Speaking in Chile Monday, Obama said Gadhafi “needs to go,” but suggested this might be accomplished using “a wide range of tools” besides military action.
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper was more hawkish, or perhaps simply more forthright. He did not explicitly back Gadhafi’s overthrow, but came close. “We’re dealing with an individual and with a regime that will not be satisfied with the mere re-imposition of authority. The nature of this leader, and the nature of his regime, is they will massacre every single individual they even remotely suspect of disloyalty. This is an intolerable situation,” he said. “If Mr. Gadhafi loses his capacity to enforce his will through vastly superior armaments, then he simply won’t be able to sustain his grip on the country. He will not last very long.”
France, meanwhile, has already recognized the Benghazi-based opposition as Libya’s legitimate government. Clearly French President Nicolas Sarkozy does not share Mullen’s apparent acceptance that Gadhafi might be left in power.
Allied nations ﬁghting a war, in other words, have very different ideas as to what that war is about.
MANY OF these divisions are the inevitable result of assembling a large and diverse coalition for military action. But they also speak to the vague goals and open-ended nature of the conflict that countries now attacking Libya have gotten themselves into.
The UN resolution calls for a no-fly zone, which doesn’t sound as belligerent as bombing runs and is a phrase more likely to win wider support. But despite U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s warning that air strikes were exactly what imposing a no-fly zone would entail, the Arab League, which had asked for a no-fly zone, still protested when the attacks began—later backtracking to say that the Arab League and the UN Security Council were “united” on the need to protect civilians.
The Security Council resolution also authorizes all necessary measures to protect civilians. This too is a hard concept to argue with, but it leaves open the possibility of military operations that are much more aggressive than some of the resolution’s current backers may support. David Cameron’s claim that the resolution does not provide legal authority to overthrow Gadhafi is at the very least disputable. “There could hypothetically be a possibility where attacking the head of the snake is necessary to protect civilians,” says Sir Richard Dalton, a fellow at Chatham House in London and a former British ambassador to Libya.
“There is no sign of his core support crumbling,” Dalton told Maclean’s, referring to Gadhafi and his loyalists. This means Gadhafi may retain the ability to control and direct forces that have thus far been willing to kill large numbers of civilians. If this proves to be the case, what are the allies now enforcing the UN resolution willing to do about it?
Here Canada’s Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon acknowledged that Western military intervention might escalate. He told the CBC that Canada was “open to all options,” including deploying ground troops. If such troops are required to “protect citizens that are being literally murdered by Gadhafi, that’s what the resolution calls for,” he said.
What exactly might such troops do? Would they protect civilians only in areas run by the rebels? What happens when anti-Gadhafi forces seek to expand their territory? What if civilians are being killed in Tripoli? What if battle lines between the two sides stabilize with Gadhafi in control of a chunk of territory in the west? Are the allies prepared to maintain a no-fly zone over Libya for multiple years? “There are so many imponderables, it is impossible to predict the course of events,” says Dalton.
According to J. Scott Carpenter, a Keston family fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a stalemate in which Libya is divided between rebels and Gadhafi loyalists “is not a desired outcome. But unless you have regime change as a specific goal, it’s what you’re stuck with.”
Pages: 1 2