Generals, it is said, are always fighting the previous war. The same is evidently true of armchair generals, politicians, and pundits, if the various postures struck over Libya this week are anything to go by. It is hard for most to escape from the long shadows cast by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That is true of both those who advocated and those who opposed the earlier conflicts. The French are the keenest on air strikes on Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, perhaps because they have no regrets at over-enthusiastic support for the war against Saddam. They were then, you may recall, in Washington’s delicate phrase, cheese-eating surrender monkeys.
In contrast, the mood is much less gung-ho in the White House, where fingers have been burned in Iraq and Afghanistan. “History has shown that when you rush into these things, you get it wrong,” one member of President Obama’s staff said — though there are some in Washington who have learned no lessons: John Bolton, President Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, insists that once Washington has said “Gaddafi’s got to go,” it cannot sit on its hands without undermining US prestige.
Yet the option is not do nothing or to start blasting at the Gaddafi air defences. A no-fly zone is problematic, even if you begin with just a warning rather than with a pre-emptive attack on military communications and radar systems in Libya. The country is 1.7 million square km — about 33 times the size of Bosnia, where a no-fly zone was imposed by NATO. It will take a large number of aircraft flying from Cyprus, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and possibly southern France. If Colonel Gaddafi responds by firing surface-to-air missiles against aircraft policing the zone, aircrews would have to blast the Libyan air-defence targets. That would seriously escalate the crisis.
The West does not have a good record on this Arab awakening. We moved to freeze the assets of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators only after they had fled or resigned. Emboldened by that, we spoke out against Colonel Gaddafi earlier, only to find that he had stopped dithering and was beginning to fight back. It is perfectly conceivable that he will now win and restart the dormant nuclear-weapons programme that Tony Blair persuaded him to freeze in return for technical help in his oil fields.
Parallels between Libya and Iraq are inexact. Colonel Gaddafi is a nasty piece of work, but he is not massacring civilians as Saddam did with the Kurds. We must take care not to allow the Gaddafi regime to rally its supporters with the cry that the rebels are the stooges of the oil-greedy West.
The old conundrum in the Middle East was whether we should prefer democracy to stability. Some in Europe still lean towards the latter, fearing that Libya might descend into an al-Qaeda chaos, prompting mass migration to Italy, France, and Spain. But the old choice between interests and values no longer holds. With stability gone, our interests lie in promoting our values in the Arab world.
The truth is that there are less radical options than bombing to assist those who are fighting for democracy in Libya. We could increase sanctions. We could move warships to jam Libyan military communications and radar to discourage attacks by Gaddafi jets and helicopters. We could supply rocket-propelled grenades to the rebels to fight Tripoli’s tanks and aircraft. There have been reports, discounted in Washington, that the US is already doing this in a secret deal with the Saudi Arabian military.
Yet there is no need for clandestine deals here. Giving the rebels more sophisticated weaponry would provide them with a big psychological boost. And the more the fighting in Libya resembles a civil war, as opposed to an all-out Gaddafi massacre, the less need there will be for direct military intervention. Ethics and common sense are not incompatible here.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.