The most shortlived alliance in human history
Normally when governments launch a war they ask: ‘What's Plan B?’ In relation to Libya they're asking, ‘What’s Plan A?’
Usually when a Western government launches a war or some other risky foreign venture, one of the key questions on its mind is: ‘What is Plan B?’ In relation to Libya, the burning question for America, Britain and France seems to be: ‘What is Plan A?’
They have kickstarted a war without a war aim, a military mission with no clear mission, an international game where no one knows what the endgame will be. Is this a war to kill Gaddafi? British ministers think it might be, but British military officials say it shouldn’t be. What does France want? The ousting of Gaddafi, says Sarkozy – or perhaps just a boost to the confidence of the anti-Gaddafi rebels, say Sarkozy’s political colleagues. With no sense of alarm or surrealism, a Guardian editorial says: ‘The longer the bombing campaign goes on, the sooner the real issue will have to be confronted: where is it leading?’
The kind of thing normally worked out prior to the hurling of bombs into the territory of a sovereign state – the question of where it should lead, what the bombing is designed to achieve, what Plan A is – is being worked out after the fact in relation to Libya, through newspaper editorials and public spats between Western nations and between government and military officials within nations.
It is the height of recklessness, a kind of blasé barbarism, to start a war without knowing what the war is for. We are witnessing the transformation of Libya into a giant laboratory for a zany, unpredictable experiment to see what happens when you mix Tomahawk missiles with a volatile Arab uprising. It makes even the ill-considered debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan look like the height of rationality in comparison.
The made-up nature of the war, its speedy and brainless cobbling together by Western leaders keen to make a quick point by firing a few hundred missiles at Gaddafi, explains why the so-called Western alliance is so spectacularly flimsy. This must be the most shortlived alliance in human history. It lasted about 24 hours – at a push 36 hours – before Washington announced that it would ‘tone down’ its involvement and agitate for NATO to take over. Perhaps keen to satisfy the needs of the 24-hour rolling news agenda, America has just overseen the world’s first-ever outburst of 24-hour imperialism.
Meanwhile, France and Britain carry on bombing, but neither of them is capable of explaining why. The Arab League, whose support was treated by Cameron and others as a much-needed moral fig leaf to show that this was ‘not a Western initiative’, expressed its concerns about the operation less than 24 hours after it started. It’s ‘The disunited nations’, as one newspaper headline puts it this morning. The extremely shortlived nature of the alleged alliance, its corrosion and collapse almost before anyone had time to write the word ‘ally’ on a piece of paper, springs from the fact that there is no aim or logic to this war. Bereft of a strategy, lacking in tactics, missing anything resembling a goal, there is absolutely nothing to cohere a military alliance. It was dead almost as soon as it was announced.
The demise of this instantly formed and speedily forgotten ‘Get Libya!’ lobby most strikingly reveals the isolation of Washington today and the lack of purchase and reach of American power. It’s worth looking back at the last time America, Britain and France were involved in a military escapade in north Africa – during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Then, America shafted Britain and France (and Israel), reprimanding them for threatening and launching military action against Nasser’s Egypt over his nationalisation of the Suez Canal. It was a key moment in the Cold War, with America effectively asserting its postwar authority and leadership of the West by putting Britain and France in their place as second-fiddle Western nations (where they remained for decades).
That America can today bow out of a Western military venture in north Africa that was started by France, and which is now being continued by France, Britain, Denmark and, er, Qatar, speaks powerfully to the impotence of American imperialism. With no Western leadership, there is effectively a military free-for-all in Libya, where the only guiding principle is the question of how many missiles it will take before Sarkozy has made amends for his recent political mistakes in north Africa, and how many fighter-plane sorties from Norfolk it will require to prove that Cameron is a Proper Statesman. Lacking an aim and a leader, there’s no natural brake on this act of violence; it is driven more by various Western party-political whims than by anything like a colonial-style goal, and that makes it highly unpredictable, destabilising and potentially bloody.
And then there is the UK parliament, where MPs voted yesterday, by a margin of 557 to just 13, in favour of this ridiculous and destructive act of narcissistic militarism. You can tell from interviews and comments that in their heart of hearts many of these MPs know that this is a pointless and problematic military operation, yet they still do what they believe is expected of them and vote for it to continue. What a bunch of sheep. What a craven act of political slavishness, with parliament effectively turning itself into a tool of Cameron’s desperate vanity. MPs are supposed to be open-minded, thoughtful, to think about what the public wants. In this instance, they have lined up like lambs to the slaughter (of Libyans).
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.