Writing in Time.com Professor Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center in Washington gave me a bit of a kicking following my blog “Well Done, NATO”. I had suggested that NATO, the EU and its member-nations endeavour to support Libya’s National Transitional Council with the stabilisation and reconstruction of Libya. Gordon rather forcibly objected, citing failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is nothing wrong with that. I like a good Yank-Yorkshire punch-up. It moves the debate forward. “What on earth are we thinking?” Gordon thundered. Here is what I am thinking.
Now, before I am deemed to have offended the entire US Marine Corps – never a good idea – my use of the first line from the Marine Hymn is not a slur on them. Indeed, I have nothing but respect for the Corps. What concerns me is the apparent loss of America’s strategic mojo. Which brings me to my main concern; America’s is catching the European disease, ignoring threat because it is too expensive. If that is the case then American leadership is over and with it NATO. I am not (yet) prepared to accept that.
Gordon paints a picture of another Iraq and/or Afghanistan with tens if not hundreds of thousands of Western troops sent to Libya to fail to rebuild yet another Arab/Muslim country. I suppose it is a natural reaction to a decade of American and European strategic incompetence and the growing American and European isolationism. Iraq/Afghanistan fatigue has wreaked havoc with our strategic self-assurance. Gordon’s Hobson choice is thus; either flood Libya with ‘our’ troops, or do nothing.
I reject that choice. First, his suggestion that we the West have learnt nothing about stabilisation and reconstruction after ten years of faking it, botching it and generally making a mess is bogus. We have indeed learnt two rather important things: 1) that the outcome will never be Switzerland (Europeans never believed in that any way); and b) if we do use what now constitutes the world’s leading pool of military and civilian stabilisation and reconstruction expertise it should only be in support of a government in transition and with a reasonable hope of achieving it.
And here’s the crux; Libya is also neither Afghanistan nor Iraq. Libyan human leadership capital is far better than in either Iraq or Afghanistan. There is a middle class unlike in Afghanistan where it had been destroyed by the Soviets. Sectarianism of the sort we saw in Iraq is far less of a factor. Third, Libya’s infrastructure has suffered far less damage than that suffered by Afghanistan and Iraq. Fourth, with high-grade oil Libya can afford its own future.
Nor can we dither. There is a power vacuum developing in Tripoli and it is vital we help the moderates on the National Transitional Council prevail. Not by sending huge numbers of Western forces, although the EU’s mythical humanitarian force needs to be stood up urgently. Rather, by patient support over key areas of governance and transition. Yes, a stabilisation force is indeed needed one drawn from all countries in the International Contact Group (and beyond) and legitimised by UN mandate.
This is the crunch moment. The residents of Tripoli, which with Benghazi is the key to power in Libya is already complaining of a lack of life essentials – food, water, power supplies. The coming battle for Sirte, the last real stronghold of Gaddafi loyalists is likely to take place only because negotiations with the National Transition Council are failing against a backdrop of the very reprisal killings I warned about a week ago. The Berber minority have walked out of talks about future governance because a relatively small number of Islamists are now pushing for Sharia Law to be the law of the land.
The West therefore needs to use its expertise cleverly. Therefore, having paid such a high price to gain such expertise it would be a shame that our collective strategic depression is leading to failure of both nerve and vision. Much of this expertise far from being a monstrous regiment can mainly be found amongst civilians in the public and private sectors, which Gordon Adam rather peevishly calls the providers of good will, advisers of merit and profit seekers. That is simply not fair.
And, I did indeed make the point that the Libyans must always be in the lead and a partnership established early and modestly to establish key needs and advice. The British are working with the Council to achive precisely that. But then again we are not American so anything we do does not count.
The bottom line is this; the southernmost tip of NATO/EU is only 294kms/182 miles from Tripoli.
The alternative is to do nothing and fiddle whilst Libya burns. How many refugees now crowd the shores of Lampedusa on their way to the rest of Europe? Expect a few more, Gordon!
“From the Halls of Montezuma, to the Shores of Tripoli?” I wonder, Gordon.
Professor Julian Lindley-French, a member of the Atlantic Council Strategic Advisor’s Group, is Special Professor of Strategic Studies, University of Leiden, Netherlands and Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London.