Monday, 21 March 2011

Of Revolutions and Realpolitik. (Part 3)

So, less than a year after beoming Prime Minister, David Cameron gets a go at some gravitas - it's foreign adventure (or misadventure) time as the man who derided both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for the Iraq imbroglio, decides it's time for a spot of liberal interventionism in Libya.

It was real "nick of time" (sorry, Mr Clegg) stuff as had intervention been delayed another 48 hours, it seems probable the pro-Gaddafi forces would have captured Benghazi and the rebellion would have been on the cusp of disintegration.

The neutralising of Libya's air defence capability was significant, the destruction of tanks and military vehicles on the outskirts of Benghazi far more so and according to Al-Jazeera this morning, the rebels have regained over 100 miles of territory securing Benghazi and with real prospects of recapturing Brega and Ras Lanuf. Unfortunately, there seems little information coming out of Misrata in the west which Libyan tanks were believed to have entered over the weekend.

The Gaddafi Government has played a deft hand with misinformation, disinformation and methods such as a ceasefire in an attempt to wrongfoot and divide its opponents and the Secretary of the Arab League didn't help with his intervention yesterday (though that may be as much for internal Egyptian consumption as it is for the international audience).

This is all fine - the immediate threat to the rebellion in Cyrenaica (as the eastern part of Libya was known in Roman and Ottoman times) has been limited and the rebels are free to advance westward without having to contend with airstrikes, artillery and tanks.

That doesn't mean they will stroll down the coast to Tripoli by any means. Sirte is a Gaddafi stronghold as is the region around Tripoli itself and while some towns further west have also joined the revolt, there seems plenty of evidence of ongoing support for Gaddafi though a lot of this is clearly orchestrated and it's more than likely the vast majority of Tripoli residents will also cheer if Gaddafi and his cronies were to be defeated.

That doesn't look likely soon and the coalition of countries ranged against Gaddafi must be acutely aware of the Iraq experience. Some on politicalbetting and other forums have claimed the US had no plan for Iraq after Saddam - this is wrong. There was a plan, there was even a putative leader, an Iraqi exile, but the problem was no one in Iraq knew who he was and he had mnassively overestimated his support in Iraq. The post-Saddam vacumn was, as we know, filled by elements with varying and different agendas and the legacy of that misjudgement was years of violence not only for the invading armies but largely for the Iraqi people.

Trying to put together a stable Libya post-Gaddafi doesn't look easy. He has been in power over 40 years and the roots of his authority are deep within Libyan tribal society. For the majority of Libyans, he is the only leader they have ever known and concepts of democracy and pluralist politics are totally alien to most in what is a country dominated by young people. That said, I'm sure with time Libyan society can and will evolve but there is no viable alternative political or governmental structure in place to supplant Gaddafi.

It may be that a successful rebel advance will encourage some elements who have always supported Gaddafi to abandon him and seek whatever accommodation they can with the opposition while the hated mercenaries will doubtless flee back to Niger, Chad or wherever.

That must be the best-case scenario - the alternative is the de facto division of the country and a protracted struggle against a resilient despot determined to stand his ground. We have intervened to save lives in eastern Libya - we have to ensure we don't simply move the bloodletting a few hundred miles west.

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