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Thursday, March 17, 2011 

A giant leap into the dark.

(This is long, even by my standards. Just a warning.)

It's difficult not to be a little staggered, not just by the speed with which policy on Libya has been turned on its head in the course of a month, but also by just how completely credulous everyone has been about the forces and especially the leaders behind the uprising against Colonel Gaddafi. What began, like in Tunisia and Egypt as leaderless, classless uprising against a loathed regime has since then been changed by necessity into something quite different: an uprising spearheaded by two former senior officials in the government, neither of whom should normally be trusted as far as they can be thrown. As incredible it seems, it was less than two weeks ago that we were so cautious about the likes of Mustafa Abdul Jalil and Abdul Fatah Younis that we were sending in spooks masquerading as diplomats protected by the SAS in a bid to make first contact proper with them. Now we've agreed to intervene militarily on their side. If this worries our political leaders, then they haven't shown any sign of it.

If anything, the opposite seems to be the case. Ever since David Cameron started agitating for a no-fly zone two weeks ago, not a moment of self doubt seems to have crept into any of the statements made by ministers. Leaving most of the arguments to the usual arm-chair interventionists, the same ones incidentally that assured us that Iraq would be a cakewalk and that we'd be welcomed in Baghdad with flowers, there's been next to no real discussion of what exactly our involvement in what is now war against Gaddafi means. Along with France we've in actual fact been the key Western belligerents, and as such it seems we'll be expected to take up most of the slack of enforcing the no-fly zone and presumably also the necessary bombing against first Gaddafi's anti-air resources and then potentially any targets the National Transitional Council wants either taken out or softening up ahead of advances by their ground forces.

As much as this will be compared against the Iraq war, some of the key differences are just as stark. No one can argue that the Iraq war was unexpected, or that there wasn't sufficient debate about our involvement before parliament voted for it. This time round, as alluded to above, the debate has been next to non-existent outside of blogs and the former broadsheets, and the only real discussion in parliament was on Tuesday during Foreign Office questions. The one legacy of the Iraq war in parliamentary terms was that it was meant to have set the precedent for there being a vote in the Commons before military action was sanctioned, the prime minister having previously been able to declare war under royal prerogative. Gordon Brown signalled his intention to give this up in his first Commons address as prime minister, a reform which like much of Brown's agenda when he ascended to PM fell by the wayside. Unless an emergency debate is called for tomorrow, many MPs having already returned to their constituencies for the weekend, then it seems highly doubtful there'll be a vote before some sort of military action begins.

Not that this will bother those who from the start have couched their arguments for intervention almost entirely in moral terms, not worrying much if at all about the logistics or financial pressures involved, the precedents set or about what comes next if the no-fly zone and air strikes against Gaddafi's forces don't set off a second round of defections and quick reversal in fortune for those leading the uprising. The resolution passed tonight by the UN Security Council contains the traditional euphemism used by organisation for war, "all necessary means", the only exception being that for now it doesn't authorise the use of ground forces. This leaves wide open the potential for a strike to be made against Gaddafi himself, as some within the NTC themselves have been advocating. As distasteful (and potentially illegal) as assassinating a foreign head of state is, this could be the best possible outcome. With Gaddafi gone, it seems unlikely that the remnants of the regime would put up much of a fight, and a settlement could well be reached.

The government should however and hopefully has been preparing for the worst possible outcome. Excepting overwhelming air strikes against Benghazi before the no-fly zone can be put in place, we could well be looking at a stalemate in which neither side is prepared to back down or negotiate, leading to a prolonged conflict where the NTC increasingly expects and demands our active assistance in attacking Gaddafi's forces. Unless we manage to effectively close off Libya to the outside world, Gaddafi is in a highly similar position to that which Saddam Hussein's Iraq was in 1991, with access to the never-ending revenue which oil provides, and reasonably secure as the regime seems to be in Tripoli, he could well be going nowhere. The pressure would then be to widen air strikes considerably, and even further threaten the civilians we are meant to be going in to protect.

And even if Gaddafi falls, what then? This is going to be a completely different situation to that in Egypt and Tunisia, where respectively there was a united army ready to step in and take charge, or opposition politicians who have been able to form a caretaker government. Impossible as it is measure how much genuine support Gaddafi has, the very fact that there have been some prepared to fight and kill for him more than suggests there will be resentment and potential repercussions regardless of which side is eventually victorious. All the more reason why it would have been helpful to know properly just whom we're intervening on the side on: we don't have anything even approaching a guarantee that the same people who were previously more than happy with the totalitarian workings of Gaddafi's government won't either seek vengeance or further purges, let alone whether they'll suddenly convert after so many years to the democratic values the revolutions across the Arab world have espoused.

None of this even begins to alter one salient fact: that this is an intervention where there is not anything resembling a genuine humanitarian catastrophe, let alone genocide. There's the potential for one should Gaddafi's forces bombard Benghazi, a city of one million which he could lay siege to, but at the moment this has been a incipient civil war with relatively few casualties, and also as far as is known, without outrageous massacres. I know some will groan, but it's impossible not to bring Israel into this. The assault on Lebanon in 2006 saw extensive damage to the country's infrastructure, rendered parts of the south of the country all but inhabitable as a result of the use of cluster munitions, killed over 1,000 civilians, and led to precisely none of the sanctions heaped upon Libya over the past four weeks. Lebanon was involved in the drafting of the resolution passed today; they may well hope it could set a precedent for some sort intervention should there be another clash between Israel and Hizbullah, as is widely feared and expected.

There's also no getting away from how just over 8 years after Operation Iraqi Freedom we find ourselves once again at war with an Arab state, the ultimate purpose being regime change. The circumstances may be very different in that this is a conflict authorised by the UN and which has the support of other Arab states who may well even offer their own resources this time round, yet if anything the omens are even worse. In Iraq there was at least a plan (which was torn up by Rumsfeld and co) and we knew the country well, having been bombing it on and off for 12 years; disaster still struck. In Libya we don't have anything approaching a plan, and know very little, while al-Qaida and its sister organisations lurk in Somalia and Yemen, just waiting for an opportunity should it come to attack Western soldiers.

Conversely, it's also apparent that the potential rewards are huge. To be seen to be acting on our word to support the uprisings across the Arab world, prepared to put our blood and treasure behind the Libyan people, could well transform popular opinion across the Middle East towards the West. It will encourage those, outside of Bahrain at least, to raise their voices ever louder for democratic change, and strike fear into the hearts of dictators and regimes that would have responded in the same way that Gaddafi has. It could conceivably encourage a coup against the leader from those still within the regime, unwilling to be dragged down with him. The threat of force might be enough to spark further mass defections. In short, those of us who are currently fearing the worst and suggesting that we have learned absolutely nothing from the last decade may well up eating our words. I honestly hope I do. I also hope it's not the beginning of Cameron's wars: Blair at least waited until he had been prime minister for well over a year before authorising British participation in Operation Desert Fox. He then went to war five times in six years.

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It would be of course be entirely wrong to even hint a suggestion that we've been manoeuvred into this adventure in Libya by the fellow travellers of the military establishment to prove that the Government should not be cutting defence spending. Perish the thought.

I don't think that's the case in this instance. Apart from Malcolm Rifkind, Dr Death and Ming Campbell, very few politicians were actively promoting a no fly zone, while about the only former member of the military to comment, General Dannatt, was as cautious as you'd expect. This is sadly another war which the military itself doesn't really want to fight, ceasefire declaration from Gaddafi today or not.

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