hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Libyan Job - Ultimately, It is All a Question of Prestige

Some of you of a certain vintage will recall a superb Michael Caine caper film, “The Italian Job”. No, I am not referring to that appalling 2003 American re-make which had none of the delightful irony of the 1969 original (typical!). In the real Italian Job a bunch of ‘plucky’ London criminals steal $4 million in Chinese gold being paid to the Italians (plus ca change…?) from the centre of Turin. To steal the loot Caine’s gang cause a monumental traffic jam in and around Turin. Escaping from the city three Mini Coopers use the only route available – the sewers. The Mafia boss is, of course, a tad dischuffed but grudging in his admiration for the planning that went into the job. “If they caused this traffic jam, they must have planned a way out”, he laments, his prestige having been severely tarnished.

In the Libyan Job we have created the jam, but have no idea how to get out. Indeed, the Libyan Job exemplifies all too clearly the inherent contradiction in much of Western (particularly European) policy as we routinely confuse values and interests. It is all too easy to espouse values when one never has to really defend them.

I was in a conference call with a senior French official who admitted candidly that there had been no real plan prior to the action. The impulse was simply to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Benghazi. I believe that but find it bizarre that so little contingency planning had apparently taken place in Washington and the major European capitals. Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are on Europe’s doorstep and I was warning (in writing) some years ago of just such dangers…and was dismissed. Yes, I know that sounds a bit of an ‘I told you so’ moment - but I did.

So, how do we get out of this jam – which is all the West’s leaders are really thinking about? Clearly, ‘we’ are at the go all the way or simply go away point, facing an adversary who is rapidly turning the struggle into urban counterinsurgency successfully negating much of NATO’s air power. The mythical international community has as ever gone for a hike at the critical moment. The UN and the Arab League keep reminding NATO that UN Security Council Resolution 1973 imposes very real constraints on allied action. And yet, they are doing very little to create the conditions for a political solution.

Indeed, I am surprised how little political vision is at all apparent, let alone creative thinking. What matters now is a political settlement that brings a rapid end to the killing. However, to bring that about a critical vision is needed for a post-Gadhafi future for ALL Libyans. To do that the unpalatable will have to be swallowed.

First, Gadhafi and his clan must be progressively isolated. This will require a back-channel political track to the regime elite that offers them encouragement to defect in the short-term and gives them a say in post-Gadhafi Libya. This will likely also require concrete inducements, such as immunity from prosecution and protection for families/clans. Libya is not simply a state, it is also a complex amalgam of clan/tribal loyalties. Of course, Gadhafi's departure would be preferable prior to any cease-fire, but need not be insisted upon and could take place AFTER an agreed period if necessary. That, the opposition would have to swallow.

Second, the political space must be created to enable the Gadhafi regime to withdraw/leave. This may well require immunity from prosecution by self-seeking Spanish lawyers, the self-juridicating International Criminal Court and, sadly, the relatives of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. I say this with the heaviest of hearts recalling vividly as I do that dark December day in 1988 when Pan Am 103 blew up. As I write this I wince.

Third, tribal leaders have been marginalised recently following the concentration of power in the hands of the Gadhafi clan. They must see they have a role in immediate post-Gadhaffi stability and that their interests will be protected. This should extend to elements in the Army so that the Libyan top brass need fear no reprisals, nor an Iraqi-style disbanding of the Army.

Fourth, the West must engage the Arab League and the African Union much more aggressively in consideration of a post-Gadhafi constitution. The European Union has a vital role to play in this respect, particularly as it concerns bringing key parties to the conflict together. An informal Libyan Transitional Conference in Europe would help give political momentum to the vision.

The next steps will be critical and this will involve some risk because to create the political space a breakthrough of sorts is needed. Two actions are needed urgently. NATO and/or the EU (preferably the latter) must now intervene on the ground in Misrata which is fast becoming the leitmotif of the struggle. This humanitarian intervention in strength could unlock what is fast becoming a stalemate with Misrata the key to the struggle. Turkey must be encouraged to play a leading role in post-Gadhaffi stabilization. Although a former colonial power that was a long time ago and as a Muslim, allied country that has expressed grave concerns about Operation Unified Protector, Ankara would have all-important legitimacy.

Mission creep? Perhaps, but unless the regime is placed on both the political and military back foot and quickly this quagmire will only deepen.

Why is Libya so important? First, Libya and the struggle of the Libyan people is of course important in principle. It is amazing for an idea apparently in decline that so many people are prepared to die for freedom. Second, we are already embroiled. The Libyan Job is therefore important in fact. Third, we cannot afford any more successes of the type we are 'enjoying' in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been a bruising decade for the West. And, the Taliban have just given us another good kicking by re-enacting “The Great Escape” in Kandahar.

Ultimately, as Mr Bridger, the English capo dei capi (played by Noel Coward) tells Caine in “The Italian Job” - “It is all a question of prestige”.

Yes, ultimately, it is all a question of prestige.

Julian Lindley-French

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