Published 12 March 2011 in The Straits Times
Debate about a Libyan no-fly-zone and foreign military intervention pits the populist impulse to aid the underdog against cold, rational analysis that concludes it would be in the best interests of Libyan opponents of the Gadaffi regime, of reformers throughout the Middle East and North Africa and of the West itself if Libyans fought their own battles.
By employing his air force and heavy armour to crush the rebellion against his 41-year old, often eccentric rule, Libyan leader Col Moammar Gadaffi is forcing his opponents to pay a high price in their battle for freedom. The price of foreign intervention, however, could be equally costly, if not more so. If Afghanistan and Iraq are anything to go by, foreign intervention in the region translates into continued instability rather than stability.
If Gadaffi were overthrown with foreign military assistance, his successors would be tarnished by having come to power on the back of American and European military hardware. The Taliban’s insurgency in Afghanistan has been fuelled by perceptions that President Hamid Karzai is little more than the Afghan face of a foreign occupation force. Successive elected Iraqi governments have yet to shed their association with foreign forces in the popular mind.
At any rate, it is unclear whether a majority of Libyans would support overt military aid from Nato. It is unclear too to what degree opposition spokesmen calling for foreign military intervention reflect public opinion. Justifications for foreign military intervention – including assertions of rising civilian casualties and the expectation of a major humanitarian crisis – are open to question. Opposition assertions that Libyan military operations have targeted civilians rather than armed rebels have not been confirmed.
The International Red Cross and the United Nations do not need military intervention to deal with any humanitarian crisis that Gadaffi’s military may create. Both organizations have extensive experience operating in crisis situations without the protection of foreign forces.
Indeed, foreign military intervention may be what Gadaffi and other authoritarian leaders in the region are hoping for. It would lend credence to the argument of Gadaffi and his sons that they are fighting a foreign conspiracy to split Libya and gain control of its oil riches. It would allow Gadaffi to persuade at least some of the undecided to support him in defense of Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moreover, it would enable him to associate his current battle with Libya’s struggle against Italian colonialism, which still figures vividly in the nation’s memory.
Regionally, foreign intervention would permit other authoritarian Arab leaders, such as the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, to reframe the debate in their countries by positioning themselves as bastions of resistance against foreign conspiracies to undermine their independence. This argument will gain weight as foreign forces slide down the slippery slope that may begin with a no-fly zone but end with an ever expanding military engagement involving more extensive air strikes and the deployment of ground troops.
Such military engagement would paint the US, NATO and Europe as opportunists, their new found willingness to topple Gadaffi contrasting sharply with their past support of and cooperation with the Libyan leader in pursuit of oil. It would also force Western nations, who have proven to be not very adept at nation building, to engage in rebuilding a society with little institutional infrastructure.
Finally, foreign intervention would undermine the wave of protests sweeping the region. These have been indigenous revolt, which in Egypt and Tunisia have toppled leaders perceived as closely tied to foreign interests. Foreign intervention would not only call into question the veracity of that notion but undermine one of the most immediate results of the uprisings: the sidelining of public support for jihadists such as Al Qaeda, since it has been shown conclusively that people can throw off the yoke of dictatorship without resorting to terrorism.
Libyans and the international community would be best served if events in Libya were allowed to take their course. The price for freedom is often high, but it is a price that in Libya’s case offers greater prospects of long-term stability than the emotionally pleasing overthrow of Gadaffi with the help of foreign forces would.