By Simon Jenkins
WELCOME to 21st-century war, liberal style. You do not fix an objective and use main force to get it. You nuance words, bomb a little, half assassinate, scare, twist, spin and make it up as you go along.
NATO’s Libyan campaign is proving a field day for the new interventionism. Seemingly desperate to scratch another Muslim itch, Britain’s laptop bombardiers and their tame lawyers go into a daily huddle to choreograph the latest visitation of death on some wretched foreigners.
Each day the tacticians tot up a gruesome calculus of wins and losses. Wednesday’s defection of Libya’s foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, somehow cancelled out two days of retreat by the rebels towards Benghazi. That retreat cancelled out a weekend of victory over Qadhafi’s army along the northern highway. Nato bombing cancelled out rebel ineffectiveness. Everything is stalemate punctuated by surprise.
Meanwhile the legal niceties border on the absurd. We cannot kill Qadhafi, unless we describe killing as “all necessary measures”. We observe an arms embargo, except apparently if the arms are going to our side and are thus “protecting innocent civilians”. Guilty civilians are unprotected. We are forbidden from injecting “a foreign occupying force of any form” into Libya, except if it is a “special force” and aiding the bombing with targeting intelligence. The bombing of Qadhafi’s compound and the witnessed killing of civilians in Sirte clearly breached UN resolution 1973. But who cares? As George Bush and Tony Blair found, you can drum up an international lawyer to defend anything.
Qadhafi’s survival is ostensibly insane. He is the tinpot dictator of a tiny country that Nato could topple in a day. It could bomb his palace, take out his tanks, land paratroops on his airport and ship in reinforcements. Libya is not Iraq or Afghanistan. Nato could set up a client regime, as in Bosnia, secure the oil and give two fingers to the Arab world, as the west always does when its interest so requires.
Instead we have the ludicrous position that Nato can save Benghazi by taking out a tank column and then laying a bombed strip to the west. But all this does is encourage reckless rebels to drive towards Tripoli and die. The maxim is old as the hills. No war can be won from the air. A temporary balance of advantage can be awarded to one side, but pilots can only destroy. Bombs are inherently crude tools of war. They cannot seize and hold land.
At present Nato strategy appears to be to prolong civil war by bolstering the weaker side. It is the equivalent of refereeing a bare-knuckle fight so as to keep the contestants on their feet and still punching. Stalling Qadhafi’s advance on Benghazi appears to have prevented its fall. Whether there would have been a genocidal massacre, as interventionists maintain, is not known. There would surely have been bloody retribution against ringleaders, which is what dictators do to those who cross them. But then Qadhafi, Assad of Syria, Mubarak of Egypt and Hussein of Iraq all did ghastly things to their enemies, usually while the West was cosying up to them.
Holding the ring for someone else’s civil war is a bizarre justification for intervention. It is a distortion of the UN’s peacekeeping role — indeed it might be termed war-keeping — and an abuse of Nato’s supposed purpose, to defend the west against attack. Even setting those objections aside, any humanitarian gain is moot. Iraq and Afghanistan were Muslim dictatorships in a state of suppressed civil war when the West intervened. The result was hardly peace, tranquillity or an easing of tribal tension, rather more destruction and bloodshed. Yet these interventions were claimed as ‘humanitarian’.