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Libya: regret and reservations

crowds in Benghazi holding a giant libyan flagThe mood in the Commons was sober, worried, passive and resigned – not welcoming the dawn of a new era in the Middle East, but fearful that this could be the start of a third, long Western war against a Muslim state.  A bloodbath in Benghazi had been avoided in the nick of time, a strong UN resolution had been obtained, and the Arab League of 23 Member States was on side. But the nagging anxieties kept showing through – uncertainty about the outcome, fears about mission creep, concerns that the support of the Arab League was wobbling, and complaints about selectivity in the application of moral principles.

Neither Cameron nor Hague in the Commons yesterday could provide any clear answers about outcome planning. If Gaddafi were deposed or killed by his own military, then given Libya’s strong tribal structure, what is to prevent the country descending into civil war? If on the other hand Gaddafi is compelled by superior allied air power to observe a cease fire and stays put in western and southern Libya, how will a potentially long stalemate be broken? Pouring arms to the rebels would not only break the arms embargo, but be legally impossible if the other side has accepted a ceasefire. Or using allied air power to knock out Libyan army strong points if the rebels advanced against Tripoli would be way outside the essentially defensive context of UN Resolution 1973.

Then there are the hawkish Defence Secretary Fox’s unwise remarks about targeting Gaddafi personally. However much we might want to see the back of Gaddafi, regime change is explicitly not covered by the UN Resolution.   Mission creep is common in these situations, but it is also wrong. We should adhere strictly to the terms of the Resolution, as Cameron himself keeps saying, and not try to put interpretations on it to suit our own convenience.

If we are perceived to be distorting the terms of the UN Resolution in our own interest, the UK will lose the support of the Arab League. Yet that support is absolutely critical if this conflict is not to be seen as yet another Western ‘crusader’ war against a Muslim country in the Arab world, rather than against a tyrant who has lost all regional backing and is facing an uprising from his own people. Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, is already wobbling in the face of the ferocity of the initial allied onslaught.

Then there is the uneasy matter of precedent. If the new UN doctrine is to intervene to fight dictators who are bloodily suppressing their own people demanding democratic reforms, questions about selectivity in applying moral principles are already being voiced extensively throughout the Middle East.   Will this doctrine be applied to Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria and elsewhere?

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