'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Friday, 18 March 2011

Offshore Balancing Act

'The evils of tyranny are rarely seen but by him who resists it'
--John Hay

'In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end'
--Alexis de Tocqueville

It's believed that what brought Washingon onboard regarding a no-fly zone was the express desire of the Arab League to enact this specific deterrent. One is reminded of T. E. Lawrence's observation, 'better the Arabs do it tolerably than that we do it perfectly.'

I hope that the Powell Doctrine is getting plenty of exposure in the White House. In that doctrine, conceived in the early 1990s, a key element was that the military plan should employ decisive and overwhelming force in order to achieve a rapid result. A clear exit strategy must be thought through right from the beginning and the use of force must only be a last resort. Much has been made of this doctrine being buried in Afghanistan.In fact, a no-fly zone must come as a great relief to Mike Mullen and Robert Gates, even though the latter seemed to express reservations regarding it in earlier testimony. The US can rapidly overwhelm adversaries using superior weaponry and awareness of the battle space. A no-fly zone would be a conventional conflict in which it could finally deploy for combat the vaulted F-22. Since there is no ground deployment, the propensity for mission creep is almost entirely extinguished.

But the Powell Doctrine, like earlier strategies, asserts that if military means are employed, they are utilised for political ends. Thus we ask in Libya, what are the political ends of the no-fly zone there? Ostensibly they are for the prevention of a massacre of a population by its own government. A no-fly zone and interdiction of material travelling to Benghazi through the desert would limit the amount of hardware available to Qadaffi's forces. Destruction of aircraft would limit the theatre to two dimensions. But history has taught us that a two-dimensional theatre does not stop massacre - the often cited example is the Rwandan genocide, perpetrated mostly with machetes and knives. Consider part of the text of the UN Security Council Resolution, 1973:

Determining that the situation in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya continues to constitute a threat to international peace and security,

Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations,

“1.   Demands the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians;

“2.   Stresses the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people and notes the decisions of the Secretary-General to send his Special Envoy to Libya and of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union to send its ad hoc High-Level Committee to Libya with the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution;

There are obviously problems here. 
One: This Libyan conflict is internal. The reason for French and British interest is that the battle will undoubtedly generate vast numbers of refugees, and as David Cameron observed, is on the Southern tip of Europe. Hence you have a political situation that at current is under the remit of foreign policy, but will spread at a later moment to domestic politics. The Italian and Maltese authorities both turned away a boat carrying refugees as they contained Morrocans and it wasn't known if 'terrorists' had infiltrated the boat.
Two: Establishing a ceasefire will create an unworkable geostrategic moment in the country. Rebels would control Benghazi, but could be ousted by Qadaffi's forces regardless of a no-fly zone. Thus the monopoly on violence enjoyed by the rebels in Benghazi would be artificial and subject to rapid change, inherent within that a furious moment of fighting between pro- and anti-Qadaffi forces.
Three: 'Responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people.' The demands of the people are not homogenous. There is no unified uprising. On the one side are the disenfrancised and on the other are those who have benefitted under the Qadaffi regime. 
Four: Tyranny, or dynastic rule, does not govern by engaging in 'political reforms'.

Even the Arab League comment to the UN resolution is confusing. Sec-Gen Moussa claimed the resolution did not allow invasion, but hoped that it would create a situation in which no side could, 'go too far'. But already the Arab League (Moussa is hoping to be the next Egyptian President and thus will be keen to avoid being seen as a Western lackey) is at odds with the three permanent members of the Security Council. Asked about the role of air strikes, Moussa said that the League had, 'stressed the jamming of radar that would not allow the attacking of the civilian population'.

And then there is the spectre of colonialism and images of US aircraft pounding North African positions, with all the internet imagery that this would lead to. So would the US allow others to take the lead, leaving its peerless F-22 grounded? Qatar and UAE have expressed intent to assist in the no-fly zone but whilst UAE has F-16s, Qatar is in the middle of trials of F-35, Typhoon and Rafaele to replace its Mirage 2000-5s. Besides, these are Gulf states and in case anyone forgot or didn't want to acknowledge it, Libya is clearly situated in the Maghreb. Although Libya has ageing aircraft (see here for a detailed breakdown by Richard Basas of surface-to-air capability and aircraft available to the regime), any casualties among Gulf/Arab nations sustained in enforcing a no-fly zone would then return to haunt American. It's damned if it does as a colonial power enforcing imperialist interests; its damned if it doesn't for leaving its hegemonic weaponry on the runway whilst others take the heat.

So far, so bad. This sounds to me an awful lot like a new form of offshore balancing. Mearsheimer's term expresses the idea that America would 'reject the use of military force to reshape the politics of the region and would rely instead on local allies to contain their dangerous neighbors. As an offshore balancer, the United States would husband its own resources and intervene only as a last resort. And when it did, it would finish quickly and then move back offshore.' The relative inexpensiveness of this approach is particularly attractive in the current climate and it avoids American/MENA ground interaction. But a no-fly zone would only aggravate the Qadaffi regime and consolidate its core. Both sides in the conflict face an existential threat and that is very dangerous, having a propensity to escalate. The war for Benghazi will not be decided from the air but this US-UK-Fr led no-fly zone will show once again the eagerness of Western powers to intervene in arenas of strategic interest. People die when they rebel against tyrants, freedom is sometimes won with blood. If the aim of the no-fly zone is to create a cease-fire, there had better be an idea of what comes after that.

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