Arms and the Man: What’s Next for Libya?

Libya is engaged in a civil war. New protests have broken out in Oman, Bahrain and Yemen. The uprising in Tunisia, the pioneer state of the so-called “Arab Spring,” is entering a second phase. As usual, the amateurish Obama administration has no idea what to do about any of this.

…America has established that its national policy in Libya is regime change. The question now is whether our inexperienced president will take concerted steps to back up that policy.

Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, boasted that the regime in Tripoli is not fazed by the prospect of U.S. intervention. “We are ready, we are not afraid,” he said Tuesday. “We live here, we die here.” Maybe that can be arranged.”

Editorial, Washington Times, 01 March 2011

Slowly but surely, the sound of sabres rattling is growing louder. Amidst a looming humanitarian crisis and incipient civil war, and denials notwithstanding, there are tell-tale signs of the ground being prepared. In the US and UK there is talk of establishing a no-fly zone, of sending in special forces, of arming and training the rebels…

As Western military assets are deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean and politicians are speaking increasingly of the possibility of some sort of  intervention, my sense of dread intensifies.

Where is the diplomatic offensive? Yes, the foreign holdings of the Qaddafi  family have been frozen, an arms embargo applied, and legal proceedings are being investigated by the International Criminal Court.  But this does not constitute anything like the full court diplomatic press purported to be underway. In fact, it reveals diplomacy’s displacement. Why is no one other than Hugo Chavez calling for immediate negotiations, offering mediation and good offices, dispatching special envoys, demanding that the UN Security Council act to separate the combatants before the onset of full blown hostilities…?

Have we not seen this movie – the one with the tragic ending – before?

Do governments ever learn?

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Muammar Qaddafi has undoubtedly  many faults, and in recent interviews he appears completely out of touch and at least partially unhinged. In face of the eruptions of popular unrest currently washing over the Greater Middle East region, it is not in the least surprising that Qaddafi’s position is threatened, and perhaps lost.

The fact that the Colonel so richly deserves to go makes it all the more import to recall that not long ago Western leaders, keen to expand trade and acquire newly available oil concessions, were lining up to see him. His decision to turn over suspects and offer a financial settlement for the Lockerbie bombing, dismantle Libya’s nuclear program, denounce al-Qaeda and stop supporting international terrorism had the effect of transforming his status from that of pariah to something approaching a new-found friend, a figure emblematic of burgeoning business opportunities in emerging markets.

Now, that rapprochement is history, and Qaddafi  is again characterized as a dangerous buffoon, an obstacle to democracy, and an enemy of the people.

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It is all quite dizzying. Excruciating, even.

Consistency has never been one of the hallmarks of international policy, but what we are witnessing now represents an exceptional, if not unprecedented case of incoherence. For decades, corrupt, unrepresentative, illiberal and often very nasty despots and autocrats and were recognized as allies, and often actively courted in the name of stability and commerce. Today, some of those same figures have become the subject of scorn, derision and ridicule.

It is little wonder that those with a preference for religious extremism and political violence find the contradictions inherent in Western policy such an easy propaganda target.

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Duplicity is distasteful, but more serious problems persist.  Massive arms spending, a reliance upon the military as the international policy instrument of choice, and the imposition of coercive solutions to disputes worldwide remain the norm in Western political culture. The continuing priority accorded the Global War on Terror, though little in evidence at present, is the foremost example of this flawed prescription. Despite abject failures in recent years, government messaging and the mainstream media continue to portray military action as both morally justified and strategically essential. Policy has become an instrument of war, rather than the reverse. Fears have been conjured and insecurity instilled.

The effect has been to undercut support for alternative approaches to the management of world order.

In response to this widespread militarization of foreign policy, acute since 9/11, there exists an urgent, and unmet need to debate, interpret and engage international affairs and global issues through the lens of non-violent political communication. Events unfolding across the Greater Middle East underline the need to encourage long term, broadly based development and to resolve disputes through diplomacy. Power is shifting, and ways will have to be found to accommodate fundamental change without repeating the mistakes – which led to two world wars and a Cold War – of the last century.

Simply put, the military is both too sharp, and too dull and instrument to deal with the challenges of globalization, and governments today desperately need to find other channels through which to deliver international policy. Shooting their way to victory won’t work, and no amount of resources devoted to existing conceptions of “national security” can ever produce the outcomes required.

Guns will never get us there.

A well-honed capacity for genuine dialogue, supple analysis, knowledge-based problem-solving and complex balancing just might.

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Prior to the latest events in North Africa and the Middle East, if the diplomatic representatives of Western governments  had found their way closer to the grass roots and were more effectively networked, they would have been better  positioned to engage in guerrilla diplomacy. Were that to have been the case, what is going on today might not have come as such as surprise, and the under-performance now on display might not have been as severe. Among other things:

  • Contacts in civil society, and especially among students and youth, would likely have provided ready conduits into newly established opposition groups;
  • International policy responses could have been ahead of, rather than so far behind the curve.

Mainly, though, decision-makers would have access to a range of political alternatives to the provision of emergency humanitarian assistance in combination with the threat or use of hard power.  Negotiations would be front and centre rather than marginalized and sidelined.

Flailing about and falling back on the familiar combination of band-aids and bullets is certainly disheartening. But it will be a disaster if Libya – as with Iraq (shock and awe)  and Afghanistan (counterinsurgency) before it – becomes yet another testing ground for new thinking on defence policy and practice.

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The current crisis is growing, not ebbing, and it is showing every sign of a meltdown in the making. While the future cannot be foretold, as long as oil remains the lifeblood of industrial economies, the stakes will remain enormous.

Even with overwhelming military power, the arrival of the heterpolar age has made it impossible for any one country to control events in Libya – or anywhere else. Absent a collective commitment to diplomacy and development, governments will face grave difficulties pursuing their interests and achieving their objectives in the complex and turbulent world of the 21st century.

Because failure is not an option, a change in course is essential.