Attack on Libya: a war led by no one

As the various bombers of Libya disavow responsibility for the overall military mission, there’s no telling how this will end.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

Three weeks into the American/French/British bombardment of Libya, there’s one key question that no one seems capable of answering: who’s in charge of this so-called Western mission? Not only does the war lack a strategy and a clearly defined aim – it doesn’t even have a leader, an entity or an individual to steer it, a Lawrence of Arabia who might take charge of this new venture into Arab territory. This makes it a new, unusual and highly reckless act: a war led by no one, with no particular purpose. Leaderless and aimless, there is no natural brake to this intervention, making it highly unpredictable and potentially extremely destabilising.

The question most governments ask themselves before launching a war is ‘what do we want to achieve?’ and ‘how might we achieve it?’. Not only did the kind-of coalition on Libya fail to ask such basic questions, it didn’t even establish who was leading the charge against Gaddafi’s regime. Who’s the boss? Who’s the go-to guy? Who’s calling the shots? No one knows. This has led to a terrifying situation where, even as the war is ongoing, its various protagonists are denying responsibility for it. From America to NATO, Paris to London, none of those currently firing missiles at Libya is willing to say that it’s their war. Instead, they continually pass the buck to others. The end result is a kind of geopolitical mayhem.

For all UK foreign secretary William Hague’s claims yesterday that the coalition on Libya is ‘unified’, in truth it is deeply split even over the question of who is leading the mission. Only these various Western nations are not competing with each other to see who can take on the leadership role, as they might have done in the past; rather they’re competing to see who can avoid the leadership role.

So where radical observers were arguing three weeks ago that Washington was kickstarting a crusade against Libya in order to strengthen its alleged Empire in the Middle Eastern and Arab worlds, in fact the Obama administration announced that it was ‘scaling back its participation’ and ‘winding down’ its air campaign less than 48 hours after starting it. It outsourced military authority for Libya to NATO and political authority, or rather ‘political oversight’, to a separate body made up of members of the coalition, including ‘Arab countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which are outside NATO’. It was the most shortlived outburst of US imperialism in history.

But NATO wasn’t keen to assume authority over Libya, as the newspaper headlines of the past three weeks have testified. On 23 March, shortly after Obama announced America’s ‘scaling back’, the headlines told us: ‘NATO to take control in Libya after US, UK and France reach agreement.’ Yet two days later, on 25 March, headlines declared: ‘NATO to decide within days whether to take control of Libya military action.’ On 28 March we were told, ‘NATO may agree to take control of Libya operations soon’.

When NATO eventually did take charge, at the very end of March, it was with extreme reluctance and half-heartedness: it has since been accused by France of failing to play a ‘full leadership role’, and over the past two weeks NATO has used the excuse of bad weather and visibility in Libya to ask Washington to please consider redeploying its A-10 Thunderbolt jets and Marine AV-8 Harrier jets. It’s a request Washington had been dreading, with US officials having already ‘expressed concern that NATO could ask Washington to redeploy its aircraft’, when everyone knows that Washington is ‘keen to relinquish command of the Libya operations quickly’.

The lack of leadership from both Washington and the body it once dominated, NATO, has led to both Britain and France effectively saying: ‘Well, don’t look at us – we don’t want to lead this war either’. French officials have criticised what is effectively America’s political and spiritual withdrawal from the Libya intervention, claiming that it ‘wasn’t the best signal to send to Gaddafi and the rebels’. It would have been ‘better for the US to keep some kind of more active role, even if it was just flying six or so planes’, the French say. So desperate are the coalition members for someone to take a lead of the Libya op that they would even settle for symbolic American leadership – ‘six or so planes’ that might somehow send a message to Gaddafi about Western resolve.

The French, initially seen as the attack dogs of the Libya intervention, now complain about ‘the allies [having] to fill the bombing gap left by the Americans’. Meanwhile, British officials are reportedly ‘worried about having to shoulder extra responsibilities’. With America having scaled back, NATO dithering and the French getting newly embroiled in the Ivory Coast, a British diplomat told the Financial Times that there will be ‘an unbearable burden on those left to manage Libya’. Clearly Britain believes it can launch a war without having to bear anything resembling a ‘burden’; it wants a fleeting, consequence-free military excursion that exacts no high political or military price, not realising that no such thing exists.

The torturous issue of leadership – or rather of leadership-avoidance – was there from the very beginning. Washington consciously distanced itself from the discussions about bombing Libya in mid- and late March, and was encouraged to do so by Britain and France, as ‘part of the process of building support for the UN resolution’. That is, with ‘the shadow of Iraq ever present’, it was decided that governments would be more likely to support action against Libya if it didn’t appear US-led. More pointedly, UK prime minister David Cameron is said to believe that it was important to get Arab nations on side so that ‘this did not look like a Western initiative’. The same shamefacedness about Western leadership, the same desire to pre-empt the accusation that this was a Western-led war and thus imperialistic and illegitimate, motivated French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s initial criticisms of NATO’s sort-of takeover. It would ‘send the wrong message to Arab nations’, he said. Yet now, so super-keen are the French not to be seen as the supreme commanders of the Libya intervention, that they have shifted to calling on NATO to do more.

Libya is effectively being treated as a hot potato, chucked from France to America to NATO to Britain, none of whom wants to hold on to it for very long. The widespread unwillingness to lead this war, to take responsibility for its execution and its conclusion, speaks to a severe crisis of leadership in the Western world. In America’s keenness to ‘relinquish command’, we can glimpse the impotence of American imperial clout today, the utter exhaustion of American designs to lead the West or to exert meaningful political influence over the Rest.

Likewise, NATO’s reluctance to assume full responsibility for the mission speaks to the demise of America’s political leadership of Western European nations, which held strong for most of the Cold War era. From 1949 to the early 1990s, NATO was the institution through which America dominated the West in the aftermath of the Second World War, under the banner of anti-communism. Now, robbed of its political raison d’être, lacking any American military will, little more than a political refugee from a bygone era, NATO is an empty shell, looked upon by Washington as the body that it can dump its responsibilities into once America has made a 48-hour PR display of airpower, and by the French and the British as a not-too-Western entity on to which they can offset the leadership role that they are clearly so allergic to.

The leaderlessness of the Libya mission makes it extremely unstable and unpredictable. The rupture between action and responsibility – where Western governments launch military assaults on Libya while simultaneously disavowing responsibility for the overall military mission – means there is no meaningful political check or logical brake on the bombing raids. There is no clear relationship between the sorties that drop bombs on Libyan towns and the direction or outcome of the intervention itself. The bombing raids are effectively blasts in the dark, individual, politically short-termist, unilateral mini-escapades, carried out by nations that are allegedly part of a ‘coalition’, but a coalition which nobody is leading and which has no clear aims.

It would have been better if the West had simply re-colonised Libya. At least then there would be something clear to oppose. But this chaotic raining of occasional missiles into an already volatile country by divided and disorganised foreign armies – that way confusion and barbarism lie.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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