Mission Creep

Marwan Bishara examines the politics of NATO’s intervention in Libya.

Pentagon Holds Press Briefing On U.S. Operations In Libya - bishara article
Some are afraid that NATO will be the de facto UN Security Council enforcer after taking over operational control of the no-fly zone  [GETTY]

Why the opposition regarding NATO taking charge of the Libya operation?

In short, non-Western international powers distrust the Western military alliance.

BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and South Africa within IBSA’s southern democracies (India, Brazil and South Africa) have all voiced concerns and outright objections.

They reckon that Western powers are exploiting Arab and international support for the international no-fly zone to expand the alliance’s role and mission in the future beyond its core mission of defending Europe.

They specifically oppose the notion of NATO becoming de facto the UN Security Council enforcer.

Moreover, like the Arab League, these powers worry that NATO members have gone beyond the UN mandate, and that the likes of France and the UK would probably go further if not put in check. 

They suspect NATO is redefining the Libyan mission and implementing it beyond its original no-fly zone objectives, or what has been commonly referred to in strategic affairs as “mission creep”.

President Obama’s insistence that ‘Gaddafi must go’ and president Sarkozy’s de facto recognition of the ‘Libyan Transitional Council’ have added fuel to worries that NATO members are going beyond protecting civilians to regime change.

Whichever way the new NATO command goes, it will be under a US commander and will be heavily dependent on US military hardware and software.

From a less political and more historical perspective, opposition to NATO’s handling of Libya draws on a long record of failures of the use of force to affect positive, constructive or democratic change in a given country.

And what about the confusion or opposition within NATO?

In the absence of imminent danger against the alliance’s territories, one should not expect its 28 democracies with different national priorities to agree on the specifics of NATO’s military intervention in a foreign country. 

This is especially the case when its two European nuclear powers, France and the UK, pull ahead and expect the rest to follow in their stead and cheer.

Even after the 28 members agreed to NATO’s unified command, the alliance’s secretary-general, Andres Fogh Rasmussen, said on Thursday that for the time being the Libya operation would be handled by both NATO and the coalition and that no final decision has been reached yet on exclusive NATO command. In other words, there are not two parallel military campaigns, that of NATO and the coalition of the willing!

There is suspicion that the likes of Sarkozy and Cameron are motivated by cynical political and economic calculations, and strategically seek greater roles for their countries in future European defence.

Indeed, the French president has insisted on unconstrained military action within a ‘coalition of the willing’ to implement UNSC resolution 1973.

On the other hand, while agreeing grudgingly to unified NATO command of the Libya operation, the Turks and the Germans are wary of the lack of clear strategic objectives and an exit strategy. They also expect more expanded and less subjective political oversight for the NATO operations.

Since their summit in Lisbon in the Autumn, NATO members have struggled to redefine their alliance beyond its Cold War posture to include the ‘right to intervene’ or ‘right to protect’ in cases of war crimes or crimes against humanity, such as genocide etc.

But even on this front, many within Europe oppose large scale military intervention in Libya in the absence of serious war crimes, threats against Benghazi notwithstanding.

I spoke twice to NATO’s Rasmussen since the Lisbon summit, and it is clear to me that the more he stressed clarity or unity on the part of NATO, he seemed to conceal disagreements or at least varied and nuanced priorities within the alliance.

What does all this mean to Libya?

After six days of bombing, the Gaddafi forces have been seriously hampered, but the balance of power on the ground is yet to be reversed.

Meanwhile, the Libyan revolutionaries continue to fight bravely despite the superiority of the regime’s firepower. Their high spirits and readiness to sacrifice continues to make up for their military inferiority.

As highly paid mercenaries and well armed militias confront highly motivated rebels ready to sacrifice all including their lives, history tells us the latter is bound to win, if not sooner, then later.

Remember, while armed militias fight out of loyalty to a despotic leader, patriots sacrifice for their country and its freedom. Arming the latter could reverse the balance of power in no time and perhaps ending the Gaddafi regime.

Concerns that Libya could descend into civil war or become dependent client state are legitimate in light of the Western military intervention. 

But it’s up to the Libyans to reject any such notion of dependency in the future, and for the new democracies flourishing around them to support their collective rights for free self determination from neo- colonial influence. Unlike dictatorships, democracies tend to be less prone to clientalism.

No ‘I-owe-you’s have gone out and no receipts or down payments have been issued to Western powers thus far by the Transtional National Council that we know of, and it could and should remain that way.

As the Libyans go to Addis Ababa at the invitation of the African Union that has long voiced its concerns of Western intervention, political or diplomatic efforts should concentrate on ending the Libyan suffering sooner rather than later.

The end game hasn’t change. Gaddafi must go. Not because Obama said it, rather because as the Arab revolution puts it, “the people want to bring down the regime”.