by Gilbert Ramsay

There are occasions when world events seem to laugh at pure political principles. There certainly aren’t as many as there seem to be. Often our politicians and our media present us with false choices, or downright falsified choices. ‘OK, we shouldn’t have given all that support to Saddam Hussein, but we did, and now he’s developing WMDs. The past is past. The question is: what do we do now?’ Those who were fooled by that kind of deceitful argument have long since resolved not to get fooled again.

But there are situations where bad decisions in the past do seem to have got us into a situation in which there are no genuinely good alternatives. And the present situation in Libya certainly looks like it’s one of them. For one thing, the disarray with which NATO leaders seem to have been thrown by it could not look less like the glib transatlantic spin machine of past conflicts.

Gaddafi’s war machine is moving east, blasting the Libyan revolution to smithereens as it does so. The end is not a foregone conclusion. But there is every chance that he could yet win.

What on earth do we do now?

At times, it seems as if the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya is talked about as if it were the equivalent of waving a magic wand over the country. Dispel the evil emperor’s diabolical engines, and his power will crumble to dust.

Of course, much of the lack of enthusiasm we have seen on this matter from the US (and other powers) is accounted for by the fact that the reality of creating a no-fly zone in this instance would be anything but simple. Libya has sophisticated air defences which would have first to be removed by a series of air strikes. We know very well that even supposedly ‘surgical’ airstrikes have a strong tendency to go astray; and that’s without factoring in a situation on the ground as confused as Libya’s. Next you have the Libyan airforce itself, which is kitted out with the latest equipment, and which we have every reason to think will put up a fight. This will not just be a patrolling job. It may very well be a real air battle with people getting killed. And this, of course, at a time when Western countries (if they were the ones to impose the zone) are already militarily overstretched and broke.

Then there is the fact that we have no guarantee – even once a no-fly zone is imposed – that it will actually ensure the success of the revolution. Gaddafi is better equipped than the rebels even without his aircraft, and now he has some momentum. Moreover an attack on his airforce by outside forces could as well boost the morale of his forces as deflate it. It would give concrete reality to Gaddafi’s currently crazy sounding claim that his is a patriotic struggle against an imperialist plot. Indeed, just by evening the odds it would cast him in more romantic light: recall how quickly in 2003 Arabs who had railed against the horrors of Saddam’s regime began talking about him – even his very brutality – as hallmarks of a paragon of strength, pride and manliness. In fact, that’s precisely how Libyan state tv is trying to frame Gaddafi right now.

What if a no-fly zone were imposed and Gaddafi looked like he was going to win anyway? In abstract principle, one could try to justify a no-fly zone purely as a sort of police operation – as a way of protecting civilians from a particular type of war crime, irrespective of the rights and wrongs on the ground. But this is wholly naive. First, if simply protecting civilians is the aim here, then we hardly need reminding that a modern airforce is no prerequisite for an effective genocide. If anything, by denying Gaddafi a relatively swift, crushing victory we might be inviting yet more bloodshed than will undoubtedly occur if this is what he, in fact, achieves. There is a more cynical problem as well. It is now utterly inconceivable that – after everything that’s been said and done – the international community can avoid the impression that it has tried to pick a winner in this conflict. And if, after what will to all intents and purposes be an offensive military operation, the winner we have picked fails to win, that’s got to look a lot like losing. And governments don’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars on fighting hi-tech wars in order to lose.

This leaves the prospect of any operation to impose a no-fly zone looking a lot more like NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo than the airborne patrols that policed the skies over Iraq after 1991. In the case of Kosovo, the a-priori ruling out of any commitment of a ground force meant that the operation came within an ace (actually not even within an ace, within a desperate bluff) of debacle, as it invited the Serbs simply to sit out the pummelling until the smart bombs ran out.

Which implies that any commitment to an operation in Libyan airspace could quite easily escalate into a full blown military  intervention. Readers of Bright Green are no doubt too intelligent to fall for arguments from negative association, but it happens that the Project for a New American Century has been calling for just that.

The problem is that the alternative – basically to do nothing – is probably equally horrendous. If Gaddafi wins (it’s still an ‘if’, of course), then there can be no doubt that he will massacre his opponents and brutally lock down the country. So much for the alleged ‘progress’ in Libya reported in recent years by the likes of Amnesty International.

It seems hardly likely that the rebels will give up without a fight, so we can expect an extended guerilla insurgency, no doubt (as is the normal course of such things) with escalating levels of desperation, radicalisation and brutality on all sides. Gaddafi will be an international pariah again. He will look for new friends where he can, and no doubt will find a few in insalubrious places. As a wealthy pariah state, one might well speculate that he will want to re-start his nuclear weapons programme. The softer impacts can hardly be pleasant either. The tide of Arabic revolutions will likely stop here. The lesson for other dictators will be that more, not less brutality is the way to go.

Where does this leave us? First, it is naive to impose a no-fly zone without planning for a possible escalation. If Gaddafi wins in spite of it, then it may well be worse than if there never was one in the first place. If anyone is to impose such a measure, then that someone must be prepared – at least in principle – to go all the way. NATO certainly isn’t interested; nor should it be. More US boots on Middle Eastern ground is the last thing we need. We can, or course, forget the UN.

That leaves the Arab league, which has been surprisingly swift to act in expelling Libya, censuring Gaddafi, and – in principle – approving the no-fly zone. But there seems little reason to think that the Arab league is capable of much more than that.

There is one party, though, which may still be able to alter this tragic course of events: Egypt. Still fresh from the fervour of its revolution – a revolution seen as accomplished in spite of, rather than because of American help – Egypt has the credibility to be seen as a genuine liberator. With that, it carries the grand, but for decades fading memories of the days when it aspired to be the head and heart of the Arab nation. Its star now resurgent, it will be eager to reclaim that crown again. Ironically, it also has the state-of-the art American equipped military to do the job. And of course it also has more practical reasons to get involved. Pariah Libya under victorious Gaddafi is hardly a neighbour it is likely to want.

Of course, there are good reasons why Egypt is likely to be wary of any move like this. Its political scene remains unstable and chaotic. Its economy is in shreds. The prospect of one sovereign Arabic state invading and deposing the head of another is a strong taboo in Middle Eastern politics (Saddam Hussein being an exception that very clearly proves the rule). But even these reasons, seen in a certain light, actually add to the case. A patriotic war now might do a lot to bring together both revolutionary and military factions in the country. And if (as it would have to be) the war was supported financially by outside assistance (America, Europe and, possibly, the Gulf) then it might offer a temporary source of re-employment for laid off tourism sector workers and their like. Moreover, intervention by one Arab state into another is by no means unthinkable. It was, after all, Syria rather than France or the US that successfully ended the Lebanese civil war. And just a couple of days ago we learned that Saudi Arabia – the state most likely to object to Egypt throwing its weight around – has itself sent troops to its neighbour, Bahrain; something which presumably entitles Egypt to play its own subregional stability card.

There is, beyond this, a broader historical argument for why this may not be such a bad idea. Contrary to what many might believe, Western countries do not have a monopoly on humanitarian interventions. Indeed, quite the contrary: most of the military interventions most widely considered to have genuinely accomplished humanitarian goals were carried out by third world countries in their immediate neighbours. The scholar Nicholas Wheeler, for example, has argued persuasively that India’s intervention in Bangladesh (1971), Vietnam’s (1978) intervention in Cambodia against the unspeakable horrors of the Khmer Rouge and Julius Nyerere’s (1978) intervention against Idi Amin can all be endorsed as campaigns which genuinely relieved a terrible human situation in the countries where the operations took place. Regional interventions are risky, of course, in so far as they may promote regional instability. But they have great advantages: local countries still have to live with the places they intervene in for the indefinite future: they have a long term stake in their stability, as well as much more complex cultural interlinkages. By contrast – even if for the sake of argument we consider the humanitarian interventions of Western powers in (for them) distant lands to have been motivated by genuinely humanitarian concerns, no one trusts a do-gooder. And with sound reasons: quite apart from any ulterior motives they may have, there is no  compelling reason for do-gooders to stay the course. They can leave whenever it is politic. That’s why Europe has carried on investing in Bosnia, for example, but Somalia has been left to stew in its own juice.

Indeed, even from the point of view of prospective Western backers, pleading their own financial woes, an Egyptian intervention is plainly likely to be a lot more cost effective than it would be to deploy their own forces.

This latter argument may sound rather grotesque. But there is an underlying moral logic to it. We – Western countries – plainly owe a debt to the Libyan people. Gaddafi has his killing machines because we sold them to him. It is our duty to make this good as best we can. But this isn’t our fight. And if we try to make it so, we steal it from those to whom it belongs. One might object that even by financially backing an Egyptian operation we would undermine its credibility. Maybe. But Arab countries are pretty good at their own PR, and besides, everyone knows that the US already backs the Egyptian military to the tune of roughly 1.5 billion a year.

Of course, one would hardly expect Libya’s problems to be solved overnight. So a commitment of this sort might seem worryingly open ended. But whatever happens now, Libya is likely to end up needing a lot of help. An Egyptian intervention justified on national security grounds would be as good a way as any to open the door to a broader based UN mandated peace keeping mission later on.

None of this is to suggest that an Egyptian intervention is a good option. There are all kinds of ways it could go terribly wrong, of course. Nor is there any suggestion that it is an option at all. But if it were an option (and the initiative could, of course, only come from Egypt), it might be the least worst option.

Gilbert works in the International Relations Department of St Andrews University, where he is completing a PhD.