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Thursday, March 10, 2011 

No exit plan.

If you want a wonderful example of how there continues to be a fundamental disconnect between those arguing for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya and those who if not completely opposed, are urging the utmost caution, then these two pieces by Rupert Read and Dan Smith respectively couldn't really showcase it any better, although Jim D at Shiraz Socialist treads a very similar path to the former.

The best that can be said for Read's post on Liberal Conspiracy is that it at least recognises a no-fly zone entails the mass bombing of Gadaffi's air-defences as well as the targeting of the mercenaries he's brought in to back up and replace the military assets he's lost. It also probably means the destruction of his air force and potentially also the airports under his control, although that's by the by. This is in contrast, it should be noted, to Ben Wikler, one of the campaign directors at Avaaz who in response to a critical piece by John Hilary on CiF suggested that by simply flying fighter jets over rebel controlled areas we could intimidate Gadaffi into not using his own air resources, without needing to physically attack anything. To call this a fantasy would be too kind. It ignores completely that no intervention force is going to take the chance of their pilots being shot down and held captive, or the embarrassment which would result from our 21st century equipment being downed by Libya's over 20-year-old Russian surface to air missile facilities.

Also fundamentally unsound, as shown sadly by the destruction of Zawiyah, is that it's Gadaffi's air resources which are ensuring he's still in the game. If anything, it's in fact his tanks and artillery, along with the better trained soldiers and commanders he's retained that are making the difference. As promising as it looked that the uprising could defeat the reeling Gaddafi through a swift march on the capital Tripoli, the lack of an overall leadership structure directing movement on the ground seems to have been it's ultimate undoing. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt suggested that people power alone could dislodge dictators, yet in Egypt especially it was the siding of the army with the protesters that ensured Mubarak couldn't hold on. Even with all the defections from his regime, Gadaffi appears to have either held on to or made offers they couldn't refuse to enough of his senior, competent military officers to direct the battles against the rebels that are now proving telling.

It's therefore even more dubious that imposing an no-fly zone now would make any substantial difference. Moreover, it would then up the pressure for further intervention on the side of the rebels: more air strikes against Gadaffi's forces, maybe even an attempt to decapitate the leadership in its entirety, under the principle that the removal of the Colonel himself would fragment the regime and its supporters; Saif Gaddafi, the most obvious successor, probably wouldn't command the same loyalty as his father does. The potential irony here is that in the worst case scenario, where Gadaffi's army drives onto and successfully puts down the uprising in the remaining rebel-held town and cities, there could well arise a genuine situation where an armed intervention could be justified: Gadaffi's vengeance against those who rose against him could easily be just as devastating as that inflicted on the Shia by Saddam in 1991.

This is in fact if we aren't already in the worst of all worlds. As Simon Tisdall notes, we've manoeuvred ourselves into a position where we've quite rightly demanded that Gadaffi go, only for it to look as though the most likely outcome now is his taking back something approaching full control of the country, even if it takes weeks rather than days. If we don't intervene more forcefully in some way on the side of the rebels, then we have to face the prospect not just of Gadaffi staying in power and meting out a terrible retribution on his own people, but also of all our words on supporting the aspirations of an entire region being hollow. While it wouldn't be an overwhelming blow against the incipient Arab spring, as the protests in Bahrain and Yemen are continuing, it will almost certainly destroy even the smallest chance of tomorrow's Day of Rage in Saudi Arabia leading to a wider uprising. Intervene and we find ourselves having participated in the overthrow of another Arab dictator sitting on what Flying Rodent has called "democracy kryptonite", and with al-Qaida waiting in the wings to fight the infidels in another country where they previously didn't have anything approaching a base. Left without an exit plan once again, isolationism has never looked so attractive.

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