“No-one starts a war-or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so-without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Karl von Clausewitz
Make no mistake; what is happening in Libya right now has the most profound of grand strategic implications for Europe and its future relations with the Arab world AND the future division of security responsibility with the United States. It could well come to define the transatlantic relationship of the twenty-first century.
This is a grand strategy defining moment taking place in Europe’s backyard and Europe in particular must for a moment put aside self-obsession and strategic political correctness. For once Europe as Europe must be clear about the outcome it wants in Libya. Indeed, what happens over the next fortnight is vital to Europe’s vital interests. Europe after all is the economic and to a significant extent the political centre of gravity for the entire Maghreb and Middle East. Look at a map!
However, time is short. We are fast approaching Europe’s maximum moment of influence over events in Libya. It is a moment that history suggests will soon pass. Get it right and Europe’s relationship with the Maghreb and the wider Middle East could be definitively re-defined for the better. Get it wrong and what Churchill once called the soft underbelly of Europe will face dangerous instability from the south for a generation to come.
The war in Libya could go two ways. Either it is approaching what Clausewitz called the culminating point, when the rebels reach the very limit of their advance and can go no further. Or, this is what Malcolm Gladwell calls the tipping point, “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” Either way, NATO’s air support for the rebel movement, allied to the arms embargo on the regime, seems to be critical.
Clausewitz also suggested that war is the continuation of policy, i.e, politics, by other means. War should thus only been seen as violent means to a political end. Thus far the mainly European coalition, albeit supported strongly by the US, has been focussed on the removal of Gadhaffi and his cohorts. Little attention has been paid to Libyan politics after the Fall. The true nature of the National Transitional Council or the forces behind it is little understood. This has been partly due to the politically correct and indeed correct desire to let the Libyan people settle this and for the Arab/Muslim world to see that to be so. The West is not very good at nation-building. However, European distraction also plays a part, allied to a chronic inability to think strategically collectively. The French and the British have driven this and with at best partial and lukewarm support from many Europeans. Indeed, for too many Europeans war has become the continuation of a strategy vacuum by other means.
It has also been a hot summer. The European Onion and its member-states have spent much of it variously engaged in trying to put out fires at home, literally, or saving its currency experiment from meltdown. No-one said leadership would be easy. This is one of those moments when leaders must give back for the fancy titles, officers, free first class air trips, fancy limos and free dinners. Call me a cynic if you must.
There are four possible outcomes all of which will have profound strategic implications for Europe and its Arab neighbours. First, stalemate continues, in which case more refugees flood across the Mediterranean. Second, the Gadhaffi regime collapses and in the aftermath the loose rebel coalition fractures, a general civil war ensues and Libya breaks up into a series of warring tribal fiefdoms. Third, the Gadhaffi regime again falls but in the absence of sufficient humanitarian and economic assistance from Europe a weak transitional government fails with Islamism taking hold in key centres. Fourth, Europe moves swiftly to replace military support with humanitarian and economic assistance under the existing UN Security Council mandate, in close co-ordination with the Arab League and African Union, and a transitional government is established which begins moving towards some form of democracy. Hard planning is now needed to ensure Option Four is realised.
Why Europe? Because we are here and because we are not America! For once therefore Europe must not simply react to events. The long-promised and seemingly fabled EU humanitarian force must now be readied and for once given the mandate and the resources to act the moment NATO suspends its air campaign. The critical commodity at this critical moment will be political legitimacy. That is why any such action must be taken by the European Onion, not simply a loose coalition of former European imperial powers. Put simply, this is a chance for the Onion’s hitherto meaningless and hollowed out Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) to actually do something beyond the exaggeratedly rhetorical.
Thus far CSDP has been an empty policy led by empty people. The Onion’s two Dear Super-Leaders, President Van Rompuy and the Onion’s foreign and security policy supremo Baronness Ashton, have thus far proven themselves unwilling or unable to rise above the normal fray of national super-pettiness that marks the normal day in the normal life of the Onion. Indeed, if ever there was a time for the Lady from Lancashire to show leadership it is now.
Europe; carpe diem! Baroness Ashton – seize the moment!
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.