Libya, and three lessons from Robert McNamara and the Fog of War:

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the Ca...
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence (1961-1968) - Image via Wikipedia

I have been struggling for some time now to find something sensible to say about Libya. One of the constraints I have set myself has been to try to avoid heaping criticism upon the West for their involvement in the first place, or NATO for providing so clear a sense of why the organisation is in need of reconstitution and serious self-examination.

Having taken a dim view of the enterprise in the first place, one might be forgiven for believing I may have some ‘sour grapes’ over the success of the endeavour. From the West’s perspective, it has been a success. It would be disingenuous to fail to admit it. NATO’s ultimate achievement has been positive and from the perspective of effects on the ground well executed. For my part, I have to confess the result is thus far impressive and the absence of Colonel Gaddafi from Libya’s government is a definite good.

The application of power by the West, in this instance, has provided regime change without all the inherent destruction, post conflict looting and murder, and sectarian violence that plagued Iraq. In the case of the latter, the Administration of George W. Bush failed to understand or plan for the transition of Iraq from dictatorship to democracy. Stripping the nation of its political infrastructure, military, and police resulted in chaos. Yet, unlike Iraq, the Libyan venture is one where the West is acting in support of a rebellion, albeit one thrown together due to the euphoria created by some surrounding nations’ more or less peaceful ousters of oppressive governments. The rebels, as disjointed as they were, provided the West with something much needed in Libya, absent in Iraq, a downtrodden group to support. In Iraq, it was impossible to side with the Shi’ites without alienating the Kurds, or to demonise the Sunnis and create further division. In Libya, the ability to support the rebellion – a nonpartisan (apparently) group, permitted a politically expedient lie to serve as an impetus for the ultimate good, being the removal of Gaddafi.

“In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.” – Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence under Kennedy and Johnson.

UN Resolution 1973 was enacted to protect civilians in Libya from undue harm by the regime. This was accomplished in the very early days after the ratification of the resolution by stopping Government forces from attacking Benghazi. After that accomplishment, NATO became the Air Arm of the rebels, tactically striking Government positions, nullifying their advantage on the ground, and making regime change through rebellion possible. This was far outside the scope of service agreed by NATO supporting nations. As well, it is clear this limitation was never intended to curtail NATO strikes. So, under false pretence NATO went to War on the side of the Rebels. The result, as we see is the removal of a dictator – surely a good.

“Proportionality should be a guide in War.” – Robert McNamara

Either by design or fortune, NATO has taken the words of Robert McNamara to heart. NATO airstrikes, easily demonstrable as being in excess of the mandate, were surgical, tactical, and effective. Moreover, they minimised civilian – that is to say non-combatant – casualties. This restraint is praise worthy. While it may annoy the Russians and the Chinese whose opposition to the resolution (which was withheld as neither attempted to veto it), the fact of the matter is the use of air power in this instance has been wholly responsible for permitting an under equipped, under-trained, and tenuously organised force to overwhelm a standing army. Luck and design has combined to provide a positive outcome.

Progressively, the rebels became better organised and armed. This is largely due to NATO personnel on the ground (we assume secretly) and the delivery of arms – admittedly from the French, and perhaps from others. In concert, Airstrikes and the fundamental breakdown of the Libyan army resulted in a sudden collapse, after significant bloodshed. Tripoli was taken with limited fighting and the remainder of government forces are either deserting or insignificant. The rebels have won. All that remains now is mopping up remaining clusters of hard line supporters of the Colonel.

This is the critical point of the conflict. Libya’s rebels, now in a position to form a Government, are the victors. NATO and the West are not. This should not be taken as a lack of recognition by the new Libyan Government – in fact, quite the opposite. But two key actions by this new government are telling.

The first: The New Libyan Government has said no – and rightly so, to UN Peacekeeping boots on the ground.

The second: The have recognised those who supported them and those who didn’t.

These two decisions are representative of something the West needs to understand. It is time to gracefully step back from the conflict and allow Libya to find its way. Support offered cannot be imposed without undoing the good created through NATO’s efforts. Transforming the current state into a factional and violent parody of Iraq serves no one. As well, this opportunity has provided the West with a positive result from actions in the Middle East. These have been few and far between in the last decade.

On the first decision, keeping foreign troops off Libyan soil is critical to the legitimacy of the new government. This government benefits from the fact that none of its members were appointed by Western powers. Demonstrating control and imposing authority from Tripoli over the whole of the country will not come from without. Rather, the difficult task of uniting the patchwork makeup of Libya’s former Rebels into a government will be difficult enough without having to justify or endure foreign soldiers on street corners. Thus far, the new government has managed well, insisting the population remembers this is their country, looting and raiding of government facilities has been minimised, and essentially non-existent. The police are already on the streets in Tripoli, restored soon after the city’s fall to the rebels. These are good signs, albeit very early in the process.

The second decision is recognition of the West, and those Middle-Eastern nations who supported the rebellion and a signal to those who would have supported the Colonel. It is good for Western self-confidence and optics that it has come out on the positive side of a Middle Eastern conflict and Russian and China have not. This may sound petty, but frankly the scales have been far out of balance over the last decade and righting them is something that needs doing. The world operates better with a balance between East and West. This is a good start. Further troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq will contribute more. Peaceful support for Tunisia and Egypt will also contribute.

On the negative side, one could begin a long series of speculations on how the West will make a mess of this positive and fail to deliver on the promise of support for Arabs and the Arab spring. Yet, while there are serious risks, they haven’t emerged yet, and may not. The risk of hawkish or isolationist future US President’s aside, and a second dip in the EU economy occurring should not minimise this moment of success and opportunity. Nor is it certain these risks will occur, or even if they do limit the ability of the Middle East to stabilise.

Taking another tip from Robert McNamara, the West should: “Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.”

While this latest intervention has gone largely well, it would be wrong to suggest this success is the portent of a new paradigm in Western intervention and support for democratic nation building. The West needs to re-think is role. Given economic and political challenges, this is both sensible and likely shall yield better results than presupposing a magic bullet has been found to addressing dictatorial regimes.

By comparison to past behaviour, Western application of power in this matter has been restrained, credible, and carefully applied. I freely admit I was wrong to presume this would degenerate into a ground war, ending in another Afghan or Iraqi outcome, that is to say, years of pain before progress is observed.

The US back seat in this has been a key factor in the success of this mission. On the face of it, the US has reputational issues that very well may have limited their effectiveness, secondly it is right that the US expects its NATO allies to step up and lead where they can. True, some of their NATO partners are decidedly dependent upon US help, supplies, and intelligence. Still, expecting others to tow the burden is not unreasonable. In this, both the US and NATO need a further coming together.

As we go forward, watching the turns and twists of events in Libya, it is possible at this moment to suggest and hope it will all work out. In saying this, it is still possible to be optimistic. All the players are saying, and seemingly doing the right things. The West remains restrained, the new Libyan Government seems focused on its people, and the Colonel remains in hiding, sending out the occasional tirade and series of ineffectual threats. He has become a parody. If he remains so, for a while at least, it may serve the New Government more than his capture or death. Competence is always highlighted to a greater degree in the presence of a clown – even a cruel and murderous one such as Gaddafi.

Kind regards,