The President needs to step up to the Libya challenge


Legitimacy is key

Gaddafi’s brutal regime has been murdering the Libyan people for weeks as the dictator took advantage of the outside world’s reluctance to step in. Despite requests from the rebels themselves for an implementation of a no-fly zone, world leaders (particularly in America) were keen to distance themselves from thoughts of intervention. The protests began in Benghazi and overturned the government nationwide to within thirty miles of the capital city, Tripoli. The west has been keen to provide vocal support to the rebels and advised the Libyan Dictator of forty two years, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, to stand down in the hope that the transition would progress like the stepping down of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Mubararak in Egypt. But in Gaddafi the world had underestimated the will and insanity of a determined dictator who, amongst other ridiculous statements, claimed that he had the full support of his people and that the protestors were all drugs addicts.

Since then the Libyan loyalists have retaliated with vengeance sweeping aside an unorganised and ill-equipped rebel ‘army’ and almost reaching the epicentre of unrest Benghazi. Gaddafi has stated that the rebels will be severely punished and there have been numerous reports of bloody violence. Yet until now the international community had not stepped in.

The problem is history. The normally trigger happy Americans are currently embroiled in two unpopular wars with the conflict in Iraq in particular being a publicity disaster. The US is incredibly unpopular in the Middle East and after claims of an illegal invasion, the blight of continuing military losses, civilian deaths and terrorism there was not much appetite for war.

In the beginning David Cameron was a lone voice in calling for a no-fly zone over Libya. Despite an increasing humanitarian crisis and human rights violations the international community continued in its laissez faire approach. But now, with French and British leadership, the UN has finally given its backing to military action and suddenly America is right at the forefront.

The shift in position is a stark one and it reflects the difference between how the American government wanted to act and the awareness of its largely negative perception abroad.

The problem was legitimacy. Iraq was quite possibly an illegal war sold to the public on false information about nonexistent WMD’s. There is a strong argument that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair were looking for a reason to remove Saddam Hussein partly to right the wrongs of the first Gulf War and possibly to secure oil resources. It is an argument historians of the pessimistic and optimistic inclinations will debate for years and one I shan’t dwell on now. The Iraq war was not backed by the UN not even independently supported by France or many other nations and was unpopular in Britain. As a result the already negative public image of the west was worsened in the Middle East and Obama’s administration did not feel confident enough to push the debate on Libya.

President Obama’s election represented a realisation of optimism in the United States. His rise to power was seen to represent ‘change’ and brought a belief that things would get better. This was not just a domestic hope. Across the globe his appointment was welcomed and on his Presidential visits he has been welcomed with ringing endorsements from a world that needs a strong America but also one that engages with its neighbours rather than independently doing as it sees fit. Obama was wary of this position and he didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise it. Forcing the issue on Libya could have backfired at that early stage and trying to convince the UN to go along with another American led campaign may have appeared to be an unnecessary headache.

The UN Security Council voted in favour of Resolution 1973 despite abstentions from Germany, India, Brazil, China and Russia. But the fact that the African members Lebanon, Nigeria and Gabon were all in favour was a valuable coup for the pro action members and indicated that the intervention would be welcomed by the African people. Such support was markedly absent in the case of Iraq.

The initial details of putting the resolution into action seemed to involve Britain, France and their Arab allies leading the way. However the Americans were launching missiles on up to twenty locations yesterday as the US war machine was unleashed once more, this time with international backing.

The change in dynamic is an interesting one now that the US has been let loose. They are the ones now forcing the issue and talking about ground troops. On Wednesday evening the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said: “the US view is that we need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include but perhaps go beyond a no fly zone.” She went further towards indicating the deployment of ground troops saying: “A no fly zone has inherent limitations in terms of protection of civilians at immediate risk.”

It is important to remember that the Defence Secretary Robert Gates was not so long ago decrying “loose talk” from David Cameron. Now it is the Prime Minister showing caution with the Chancellor George Osborne being far more hesitant about the possibility of soldiers during an interview with Andrew Marr. He said: “We are not considering ground forces at the moment…..we are enforcing the United Nations resolution and we are acting as part of an incredibly broad coalition of nations.”

The reason the American position has shifted so far in just a matter of weeks is due to external factors. They always wanted to act. They still see themselves as the great superpower that can save the world despite no one wanting them to. The political climate required that this time UN approval had to be gained and Britain and France ensured that this was achieved. Expect America to drive forward now that the difficult political machine has set the wheels in motion for action. America has an opportunity to enhance its position internationally, particularly in the Middle East, and President Obama will be keen to exploit it. It was foreign policy upon which Presidents Kennedy and Nixon based their legacies unfortunately the same can be said for the Bushs’.

The nature of this conflict could be a game changer in terms of Britain and America’s standing in the world. Mistakes made in Iraq have been learned from in this situation. The gaining of the UN backing has been put a requirement for action to be taken. Mr Cameron has announced that legal consultations will be published. It has been a smart play by the Prime Minister who has pumped up his leadership credentials when Obama has been lagging behind. The US are sending in the troops quickly and starting to talk big in order to regain the impetus and the glory. But Mr Cameron doesn’t need to do much more. By mobilising the UN he already has a victory. It’s now up to the UN and America as to whether this no fly zone replicates the capture of Milosevic or the failure of the Gulf War.